Thursday, January 06, 2011

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer (Review Part 5)

Impassible passion?

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 5)

It's been a while since the last part of this review series, so it is about time that I got going again on this one. In this penultimate post on Vanhoozer's book we'll be looking at his proposals on the impassibility of God.

That God is vulnerable to suffering is axiomatic for what Vanhoozer calls "kenotic-perichoretic relational theology" (see Part 2). According to Jurgen Moltmann,
[God] suffers from the love which is the superabundance of and overflowing of his being. In so far he is 'pathetic'. (Quoted on p. 391).
Vanhoozer cites a claim that divine passibility has become the "new orthodoxy". (p. 392). He gives a number of reasons as to why this situation might have come about including: A democratising concern to emphasise human freedom over divine sovereignty. The problem of evil, 'How', ask the likes of Moltmann, 'can we believe in an impassible deity in the light of the Holocaust?'. A renewed focus on the centrality of of Jesus' passion that makes the cross definitive for our understanding of the very being of God. A reciprocal account of God's love for the world in terms that entails divine vulnerability to the rejection of his love and divine distress over the suffering of those whom he loves.

However, while noting these concerns, Vanhoozer endeavours to make a case for the impassibility of God. God is impassible because he is without passions. That is, he is devoid of irrational forces of feeling. He doesn't get irritable or lose his temper in a fit of pique. But does that mean that God is without emotions? Not according to Vanhoozer, if emotions are defined as "covenantal concern-based construals". In other words, God's emotions are geared towards his covenant people. In his compassion he acts to save them from sin and suffering. He is jealous of his people's undivided love and loyalty. These theodramatically expressed divine emotions are constant and true. They are not subject to change, (Malachi 3:6). Hence, God's emotions are impassible - without passion. But the impassible God feels. Loving his people with an everlasting love, he acted to redeem them from sin in Christ.  

So, we come to the cross, where the Son of God suffered for our sins. What does Calvary have to say to the question of divine impassibility? According to Cyril, "The Word suffered impassibly". In saying so he affirmed the impassibility of the divine Word and also took into account that the Word made flesh suffered for us in his humanity. This is where the communicatio idiomatum or 'communion of attributes' in the incarnate Son comes into play. We do not say that the Son in his divine nature was impassible, while his human nature suffered on the cross. Rather, that the impassible Son suffered for us in his human nature. In biblical terms it was the Son of God in his humanity who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20). However, the Son did not suffer on the cross simply to show empathy with a world racked by pain and tragedy. The cross was not so much an act of divine identity with a suffering world, as the Son of God suffering in dying in the place of a guilty world. His cry on the cross was not, "Now I know how you feel!", but, "It is finished!".

Vanhoozer suggests that modern attempts at rendering God passible might make him seem more appealing to our "touchy-feely" postmodern world, but they fail to capture the grandeur of God's free and loving self-determination to be the the "Lord (and servant) of covenant grace". God's love for his people is  not a vulnerable love that by its very nature entails suffering pain and rejection, but  a "lordly love" that effects salvation through the substitutionary suffering of Christ and transforming power of the Spirit . As such, Calvary is the definitive revelation of God's love for sinners. In Christ God is not a "fellow-sufferer who understands" (Whitehead), but "a sovereign sufferer who withstands" (Vanhoozer). That is the impassible compassion of our God.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Good, this all makes sense (even, for me, at 3.30 am when insomnia forces me from my bed).

I've felt a growing sense of unease with some of the language sometimes heard in Reformed churches with reference to the 'feelings' of God, and what seems to me a failure to take into account the anthropopathism of certain Scriptural statements. Yet at the same time I recognise the need to distinguish between impassivity and impassibility.