Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Anselm on the suffering of the impassible God

Reading through Anselm's Why God Became Man I came across a remarkable passage on how the impassible God is said to suffer in Christ. This is important, because many Evangelicals seem to have abandoned divine impassibility in recent years. Jürgen Moltmann has been highly influential in precipitating  the turn from impassibility. He argued that the theological task must be reconfigured in the light of the Holocaust. A God who cannot suffer is of no use to a suffering world, "Only a suffering God can help' was his famous dictum. 

We may instinctively recoil from the idea of impassibility, as if by that world it is being suggested that God is cold, remote and apathetic. Such a God would be indifferent to the miseries of life in the veil of tears. However, when our forefathers confessed that God is 'without body, parts or passions' (here), they did not mean that he is without emotions, but that he is devoid of emotional spasms. A 'passion' is a temporary feeling of elation or irritation, a flash in a pan. There is nothing 'flash in a pan' about God. He is eternal and unchanging in his being and attributes. 

Impassibility is not a defect in God. He is not emotionally stunted or remote. God is love. He is totally satisfied in the perichoretic union and communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within the fullness of his perfect being. It is out of his self-sufficient aseity that God relates to us as his creatures. He is not dependent upon us for love or emotional completion, but he generously stoops to bring us into the rich blessing of loving fellowship of the Trinity. That is why he made us in his image. That is why he acted in Christ to reconcile us to himself after the fall.

The impassible God loves without sentiment and burns with wrath against sin without the least irritation. He is free to reach out to us in our suffering without being overcome by it. Divine impassibility is the grounds of God's covenant faithfulness. His self-generated and eternal love cannot be stretched to breaking point by the failings of his chosen people. In his impassibility God is never discouraged or disappointed. Nothing can quench his determination to save hopeless sinners. His is an impassioned impassibility. 

The impassible Father spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all at Calvary. That does not mean the Father was coldly indifferent to the suffering of his Son. He loved him infinitely as he hung and suffered there (John 10:17). But he loved us too and it was only through the willing sacrifice of his Son that the wrath of God could be averted from sinners, 1 John 4:10. For that happen the impassible Son had to be made flesh to suffer and die for us. And so to Anselm, reflecting on the passion of the impassible God in Christ, 

For we affirm that the divine nature is undoubtedly incapable of suffering, and cannot in any sense be brought low from its exalted standing, and cannot labour with difficulty over what it wishes to do. But we say that the Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, one person in two natures and two natures in one person. In view of this, when we say that God is suffering some humiliation or weakness, we do not understand this in terms of the exaltedness of the non-suffering nature, but in terms of the weakness of the human substance which he was taking upon himself.... For we are not, in this way implying lowliness on the part of the divine substance, but are making plain the existence of a person comprising God and man, (Anselm of Canterbury: The Collected Works, Oxford, 2008, p. 274-275.

Note that Anselm does not merely say that the human nature of Jesus suffered for us, but that the person of the Son, impassible in his deity, suffered for us in his human nature. What we need from God is not the sympathy of a cosmic fellow-sufferer, but one who has acted to save us from sin and suffering. Only a suffering God in Christ can help us. Calvary reveals the true the depths of God's limitless, unchanging love for sinners, Romans 5:6-8. Impassible love is not needy and vulnerable, but free and outgoing; flowing from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit to the world. 

As the Puritan Poet Edward Taylor (c1642-1729) meditated,

Meditation 1
What Love is this of thine, that Cannot bee
In thine Infinity, O Lord, Confinde,
Unless it in thy very Person see,
Infinity, and Finity Conjoyn'd?
What hath thy Godhead, as not satisfide
Marri'de our Manhood, making it its Bride?

Oh, Matchless Love! filling Heaven to the brim!
O're running it: all running o're beside
This World! Nay Overflowing Hell; wherein
For thine Elect, there rose a mighty Tide!
That there our Veans might through thy Person bleed,
To quench those flames, that else would on us feed.

Oh! that thy Love might overflow my Heart!
To fire the same with Love: for Love I would.
But oh! my streight'ned Breast! my Lifeless Sparke!
My Fireless Flame! What Chilly Love, and Cold?
In measure small! In Manner Chilly! See.
Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.

1 comment:

Russ said...

I loved and appreciated this post. Thank you!