Why We Need A God Who Does Not Suffer

Most people will readily acknowledge that there is more than one way to write about theology on the internet. One very common way is to draw your newly polished theological Excalibur and carve up those deemed to be in error or heresy. Another approach, perhaps more befitting of my purposes here, is that of one who has found a great treasure in the attic which needs to again be dusted off and appreciated. This is my approach here. The treasure is the classical doctrine of God which although much maligned in modern theology is again in some circles being recovered with gusto.[1]

It was before I was ordained, while studying theology at the University of Manchester, that I first encountered the 20th Century theologian Jürgen Moltmann.[2] Like many theologians of the past century, Moltmann rejects the classical doctrine of God. Specifically, immutability – the idea that God does not change, and impassibility – the notion that God does not suffer. In this piece I will not make any novel arguments in favour of these doctrines. Rather, in the spirit of rediscovering a great treasure, I will outline some of the main things to be appreciated about an immutable and impassable God. I recognise that in the space I have here there is not enough room to address every aspect of such a complex subject. So, in this piece I will restrict myself to addressing the main points that arise from the Old Testament.[3]

The immutable God and the Old Testament

One of the oft-repeated criticisms of the classical doctrine of God is that it owes too much to Greek Philosophy rather than scripture. When it comes to immutability and impassibility, we have to admit that the picture we get from scripture appears mixed. There are passages that assert in the strongest terms that God does not change (e.g. Numbers 23:19, Psalm 110:4, Psalm 102:25-27). There are, however, plentiful occasions in the narrative of the Old Testament where God does appear to change his mind, such as Genesis 6:6-7, Exodus 32:12,14 and Jonah 4:2. In 1 Samuel 15 the exegetical impasse is brought into sharp relief where in the space of one chapter we read that the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king (v.11), but later in the same chapter (v.29) we are told that the Lord does not change like human beings do. How are we to hold these passages together consistently? It is my contention that the classical conception of a God who is unchanging provides a better hermeneutical key than the contrary. Thomas Weinandy sums this up when he says:

To interpret these statements on the same level, that is, to say that God, in one and the same manner, does and does not change his mind is to predicate of God something which necessarily demands an irreconcilable contradiction. However, if the seemingly contradictory statements are attempting to say different things about God on different levels then both could be true without contradiction.[4]

In Weinandy’s view the first set of examples are direct didactic passages which tell us something about God’s nature; namely that he does not change. The narrative passages, on the other hand, are to be seen as God’s accommodation to human beings in his interactions with them in time. God does not lack knowledge or wisdom as human beings do. Consequently, God’s apparent changing in his interactions with Noah, Abraham, Moses and numerous others must surely be seen as a function of his entering into relationship with them as ‘a character in the play’ though God is the author of the play. This is analogous to the way we read references to God’s arm, hand, nostrils and so on. It would be a great mistake to think that God literally has hands, nostrils, and feet. We understand these things to be metaphors that communicate something about how God is acting in the world. Similarly, it would be a mistake to think that God really does ‘repent of making Saul king’ as if he did not see this coming because he lacked some element of knowledge or wisdom.

It is my contention that, in order to make sense of the whole of the Old Testament witness where we see that God is both transcendent, utterly distinct from the created order, and yet also able to enter into his creation (immanent), in relationship with his creatures, we must see God as impassible and immutable.

Impassibility is not a lack

Many of the criticisms of the doctrines of impassibility and immutability conceptualise the inability to suffer or change as a lack in God. However, this is not the way these doctrines have been thought about in the past. Thomas Weinandy in surveying impassibility in the Church Fathers summarises their understanding as follows:

For the Fathers…God’s immutability radically affirms and profoundly intensifies the absolute perfection and utter goodness of God, who as Creator, is the one who truly lives and exists.[5]

For the church Fathers, impassibility is the opposite of something that God lacks. All created things are passible: subject to change and suffering. On the other hand, God is perfection and possesses life in and of himself. He does not lack anything and therefore he cannot be mutable as his creatures are. Consequently, the doctrines of impassibility and immutability safeguard God’s perfection and his distinctness from the created order. Those who argue that God suffers cannot avoid but say that God in a certain sense is dependent on the world because it is only by creating that he is able to suffer. Indeed, one might go further and say that evil is a necessity in this schema.

God is already maximally compassionate

One much neglected component of the classical doctrine of God which is a natural consequence of immutability and impassibility is the idea that God is ‘pure actuality’ (actus purus).[6] If God cannot change then his expression of each of his attributes towards us cannot change either. Thus, God does not move from a state of less loving to more loving depending on our situation. Take the situation of someone who goes from experiencing great joy to bereavement. From our perspective it may look like God’s attitude toward that person has changed from a joyous kind of love to a compassionate kind of love. This is the case from the perspective of the creature. However, in God there is no change because God’s love (to take just one of God’s attributes) is maximally ‘in act’ at all times. For the creature however, it is experienced as change because we change. This is the meaning of the idea that God is ‘pure act’ that God is pure actuality itself and thus God cannot become more perfect through change. The point is that if God is ‘pure act’ then God is already at all times maximally compassionate. In other words, the classical doctrine of God does the same work of assuring us of the extent of God’s love expressed to those who suffer without having to make the incoherent claim that God suffers with us.

Does a suffering God help in our suffering?

The question of God’s nature in response to the evil and suffering of this world is not a purely academic one. As someone in pastoral ministry I understand the appeal of telling those who are suffering that God is suffering with them. Moreover, because of the incarnation we can be assured of the fact that God the Son as man did suffer, ‘for us and for our salvation’.[7] However, as we read the Psalms one of the things that is an evident comfort for the Psalmist in suffering is that, rather than God suffering with him, God possesses the infinite resources to lift him out of suffering.[8] The call of the Psalmist is in essence to lift our gaze out of the pit that we are in to God who is not in the pit with us.

A prayer in the great compilation of Puritan Prayers ‘The Valley of Vision’ summarises this attitude.

O God, most high, most glorious, the thought of your infinite serenity cheers me, for I am toiling and moiling, troubled and distressed, but you are forever at perfect peace.[9]

To my mind, it is of great comfort that God is ‘forever at perfect peace’.

 

Footnotes

[1] E.g. In Roman Catholicism Thomas Weinandy and in the Reformed tradition James Dolezal and James M. Renihan

[2] https://www.theopedia.com/jurgen-moltmann

[3] I also recognise that for Moltmann the key point against immutability is the incarnation a point which has been ably rebutted from the classical perspective but which is too complex to address in this short piece.

[4] Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), p.60

[5] Ibid. p.110

[6] https://www.gotquestions.org/actuality-potentiality.html

[7] This can be maintained without saying that God ‘as God’ suffers. See Ibid, ‘The Incarnation - The Impassible Suffers’ pp.172-213

[8] E.g. Psalm 55:19

[9] Arthur Bennett (ed.), The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, (Banner of Truth Trust 1975), Kindle location 454

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