Review: Does God Suffer?
By Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap. (Notre Dame: 2000).
The classical view of God defended for most of church history by
thinkers such as the early church fathers, later theologians like Aquinas, and reformers like Calvin and Arminius, was that God is impassible. This means that God does not experience changes of emotional states. But in recent times, this doctrine has come under sharp criticism by theologians of varied backgrounds.
Catholic theologian Thomas G. Weinandy’s book, Does God Suffer?, is a robust defense of the classical doctrine of impassibility. As he explains in the preface, his desire is to refute erroneous arguments made against the doctrine, and to present a positive view of God in light of this teaching. I think he succeeds on both counts.
In this review I will survey each chapter of Weinandy’s book and summarize his arguments. But before I do that, since the concept of impassibility may be foreign to many readers, I want to take just a moment to clarify what exactly this teaching means. But first, we need to understand some more basic ideas about God and language.
The most fundamental truth in Scripture is that God is the Creator. He brought everything else into being, but He Himself has always existed (Gen. 1:1). God is not like the desk I am using to hold up my computer, for instance. It is composed of parts, and that means someone had to assemble the parts. And some day it will fall apart. But no one had to “assemble” God. He is not composed of parts, He was not made, and He will never cease to be. He is, and always will be, “I AM” (Ex. 3:14).
One of the classic ways to prove God’s existence relates to this absolutely unique feature of God’s being. All around us we see things that change. And the reason things change is because they are a mix of what they could be (potentially) and what they really are (actually). My computer was once on the floor in actuality, but it had the potential to be up off the floor. What made that potential an actuality is my desk – it now holds the computer up. So we might say that the desk has “actualized” my computer’s “potential” to change locations. The computer certainly couldn’t do so on its own. Things that are a mix of “act and potency” cannot actualize themselves. But the same is true of my desk, come to think of it. Something must actualize its potential to hold up my computer – the floor. But the floor needs something to hold it up – the ground. And so on. From this line of reasoning, the ancients deduced that there must ultimately be something that does not need to be actualized by anything else, something that is not a mixture of act and potency, but simply is “pure actuality” in and of itself. God.
In other words, nothing can make God any more “God” than He already is. There is no potential in Him that needs to be actualized. It is in this sense that God does not change. As Weinandy has previously written, the reason that God does not change is for completely opposite reasons that a rock does not change. A rock doesn’t change because it is lifeless and inert. God doesn’t change because He is “pure act,” so perfectly “dynamic, so active that no change can make him more active” (p 124, quoting his previous book, Does God Change?). It is impossible to make sense of the concept of impassibility without grasping this fundamental point about God’s nature.
Another key clarification. Impassibility is often caricatured to mean that God doesn’t feel emotion. But that misses the point. In light of the description of God as “pure actuality,” the concept of impassibility instead contends that because God is so dynamically loving, nothing could alter His character to somehow cause a fluctuation in His love. He does not have human passions, subject to changing physical states or mood swings, but He does possess perfect affection. More on that as we get to the book.
I need to make one other crucial point before looking at Weinandy’s argument, and that has to do with the language of the Bible. Since God is the Creator, standing separate and above the created order, there is nothing in the created order that is truly in the same category as God. And so there is nothing that we can point to that will in any way be identical to God. You can find many other men besides me, or cars besides mine, or cats besides mine (please don’t), but there is only one God. This means that when we read language in Scripture that means one thing about human beings we must be careful that we do not assume it means exactly the same thing about God. The Bible speaks of the eyes, ears, arm, and hand of God. It would be a mistake to assume that this language means exactly the same thing about God that it means about us. But it does mean something. And that something is what this book is all about.
Chapter 1: The God Who Suffers
In the first chapter Weinandy traces the overturning of the classical tradition, dominant for almost all of church history, by theologians in the previous one hundred years. He attributes this change to the tremendous human suffering brought on in the 20th century by the world wars, and especially the Holocaust. Theologians began looking for a new way to relate to God so that He would be more sympathetic to the immensity of human suffering, and this led to the rejection of impassibility.
Chapter 2: Theology – Problems and Mysteries
Before he tackles the task of addressing the doctrine, Weinandy makes a crucial distinction in this chapter between solving problems vs clarifying mysteries. When we look at biblical doctrines as problems to be solved (Trinity, atonement, incarnation), we will inevitably truncate some aspect of biblical teaching in order to arrive at a “solution” (in good Enlightenment fashion). But when we look at such doctrines as mysteries of the faith with complementary rather than contradictory truths, we will reach greater clarity without sacrificing the mystery. It is also in this chapter that Weinandy states his basic definition of impassibility: “God is impassible in the sense that he cannot experience emotional changes of state due to his relationship to and interaction with human beings and the created order.” (p 38)
Chapter 3: Yahweh - The Presence of the Wholly Other
Here Weinandy surveys the OT data about God. The OT presents God as “Wholly Other (p 46),” “singular in his mode of existence” (p 51), what theologians sometimes refer to as God’s transcendence. But at the same time, as Psalm 139 shows, God is intimately involved in the lives of His people and the affairs of His creation – what theologians refer to as God’s immanence. And it is precisely because God is transcendent that He is also immanent. “That God is able to be present and active as the Wholly Other, and is present and active only because he is Wholly Other is, I believe, the primary, central and pivotal mystery of biblical revelation.” (p 53)
Think of it this way. Have you ever had so much to do, so many people you wanted to help, that you wished you could be two places at once? In my work as a preacher I often feel the pinch of limited time and energy. I wish I could be present with everyone who needs me (immanent), but I can’t, because I am very limited. But because God is Wholly Other, and transcendent, He can be in “two places at once.” He is everywhere at once!
Weinandy also discusses the passages in the OT that speak of God in passionate terms, even changing His mind. Such verses may be thought of as “literal” so long as we understand “it is a literalness that must be interpreted from within the complete otherness of God” (p 59). And what they actually express is “a deeper truth – that of his unchanging and unalterable love for his people and of his demand for moral rectitude” (p 61).
Chapter 4: Bridges to the Patristic Doctrine of God
In this chapter Weinandy discusses two bridges from the Old Testament to the early church father: the language found in the New Testament that has a philosophical character, and the writing of Philo. The New Testament language he discusses is found in the passages relating Christianity to pagans (Rom. 1:20; Acts 14:15-16; 17:23-25; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; Rom. 11:36). He also discusses the background of Plato and Aristotle against these passages.
Discussion of the use of the term logos (in John 1:1-3, 14, 18) provides a natural hinge to turn to Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher (a Middle Platonist). Weinandy’s conclusion is that while some of what Philo said about God was too heavily influenced by Platonism, on the whole, he wrote as “a faithful Jew who knew his scriptures” (p 79), a “Jew who spoke with a Greek accent” (p 81).
Chapter 5: The Patristic Doctrine of God
Since the early church fathers are often accused of distorting the OT account of God with Greek philosophy, Weinandy spends quite a bit of time explaining the positions of these ancient believers. While Weinandy doesn’t discount the impact that Greek philosophy had on them, all of these writers accepted the biblical doctrine of creation, and “it cannot be over-emphasized that it is the act of creation that scripturally and philosophically grounded the early Christian understanding of God and distinguished its doctrine of God from that of the Greek philosophical tradition” (p 112). “They were not philosophical innovators. They were theological innovators and their innovation was founded upon the Bible” (p 108).
Chapter 6: The Trinity’s Loving Act of Creation
With chapter 6 Weinandy comes to what he calls the “heart of this study” (p 114), a look at impassibility in light of the Trinity. After discussing the concept of the Trinity (using Aquinas as his guide), he applies this teaching to impassibility itself. “The persons of the Trinity are completely and utterly passionate in their self-giving to one another and cannot become more passionate” (p 119). Since this is the case, creation is “a sheer act of the Trinity’s loving goodness and freedom” (p 143). After contemplating the mystery of the Trinity and the beauty of God’s love, Weinandy comments, “It is here that the mind must bow in adoration and the heart burst forth in praise” (p 145).
Chapter 7: God’s Love and Human Suffering
Because the impetus for the rejection of impassibility is the problem of human suffering, the last four chapters of the book address this issue. Weinandy begins by exploring the reasons for suffering (sin and the privation of good). He then directly answers the title question of the book, “does God suffer,” with the simple response, “No,” for two reasons. First, God in himself cannot suffer since he is not physical and therefore cannot feel pain. And second, since God is pure act and unchanging, he cannot experience “some form of divine emotional agitation, anguish, agony, or distress” (p 153). Otherwise, something could inflict some form of deprivation upon God, and he would be reduced to being part of the created order rather than Creator.
It must be emphasized, however, that this should not be misconstrued to mean that God is unloving in the midst of our suffering. God is perfectly loving – “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And that perfect love is dispensed to us in our suffering, though (just as we experience the light dispensed through a prism as many different colors), we experience that love in the form of many qualities, such as mercy, compassion, and patience, even grief and sorrow. When Scripture speaks of God suffering, “it accentuates the truth that God’s perfectly actualized goodness is wholly adverse to all that is contrary to his goodness, and that in his perfectly actualized love he embraces those who suffer because of sin and evil” (p 169).
Chapter 8: The Incarnation – The Impassible Suffers
If God doesn’t suffer, then what about Jesus? We as Christians believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, yet he obviously suffered. How do we reconcile the doctrine of the Incarnation with impassibility. Actually, as Weinandy argues, it is the failure of modern theologians to “grasp the full significance of the Incarnation” that led to the denial of impassibility (p 172).
The Incarnation holds that Jesus was the person of the Son existing as a man. The two natures - human and divine – were united in one person. We will never fully grasp this great mystery, but there is a simple point to make as it relates to how Jesus suffered on the cross. The Book of Hebrews teaches that part of the reason Jesus suffered was to sympathize with us. We suffer as humans. This means that when Jesus suffered on the cross, he suffered as a man. If the Son suffered in his divine nature, then he would have not in fact been experiencing suffering “in an authentic and genuine human manner” (p 204).
When we understand this, it makes the concept of the Incarnation even more profound in light of divine impassibility.
This is the marvelous truth of the Incarnation…God, who is impassible in himself, never experienced and knew suffering and death as man in a human manner. In an unqualified manner one can say that, as man, the Son of God had experiences he never had before because he never existed as man before – not the least of which are suffering and death. This is what humankind is crying out to hear, not that God experiences, in a divine manner, our anguish and suffering in the midst of a sinful and depraved world, but that he actually experienced and knew first hand, as one of us – as a man – human anguish and suffering. (p 206)
Chapter 9: The Redemptive Suffering of Christ
Leading from his discussion of the Incarnation, Weinandy next takes up the atonement. He sees three aims of the death of Jesus: to assume our condemnation, to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice, and to put to death our sinful humanity. Since this chapter was less immediately connected to impassibility, I will leave it at this summary.
Chapter 10: Suffering in the Light of Christ
In the final chapter Weinandy offers as a practical and concrete look at suffering in light of our consolation in Christ. There are many causes of suffering: personal sin, the “good groaning” of sanctification, God’s discipline, the sins of others. But through Jesus we are freed from the greatest suffering, damnation, and no temporal suffering can separate us from him or the assurance of eternal life. And he also encourages those who share in the body of Christ to unite to sufferers in prayer and good works.
For a book on such a dense topic, Weinandy writes with clarity and heart. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring the nature of God. By doing so, you will come away with greater appreciation for the work of Jesus, “the Father’s merciful and loving response to human suffering” (p 287).