Tag Archives: divine impassibility

on the move

For a few years, a group of friends and acquaintances have been playing theological volleyball it seems, arguing the same points about the Cross, biblical interpretation, open theism, and the attributes of God. We’ve shared meals together, Skype chats, Google Hangouts, email exchanges, long, drawn out Facebook “conversations,” but I just feel like I needed return to writing and reading about theology again. I guess this is the best way since I hadn’t blogged in forever, but here goes, really briefly.

Team Zeus, the group of theologians who wish to prioritize Greek metaphysics over special revelation such as the Prophets argues that our understanding of divind abandonment is wrong. Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken the Christ on the Cross, it’s just a cry of pain and despair. Furthermore, our interlocutors continue to suggest that God is both immaterial and equally omnipresent at ever place in the world. Divine abandonment they have even suggest in their poems and continuous conversations online is also a not very pastoral approach to theology. We wouldn’t want a depressed person to learn that God has left them to deal with their emotional bouts, do we? That’s not nice, it’s not politically correct, I mean pastoral.

What to make of all of this? Is divine abandonment an offensive theology that doesn’t give people hope? In the words of Rosa Parks, I say, Nah homey. Not in the least. I refuse to be moved by my former and current position I once held defending God’s freedom to move. My pushback against the priority of Greek metaphysics in the reading of Scripture isn’t some personal vendetta against a few Church Fathers after Clement of Alexandria; it’s about, as I have maintained about the freedom of YHWH as God has revealed to us. Team Zeus does not like the idea of God moving from place to place, and they also don’t like the idea that God has a glorious presence that was with the Hebrew prophets and priests in the tabernacle and who enlivened the very anatomy of the Messiah (John 1). For Team Zeus, every tribe and nation gets a participation trophy and a piece of God’s presence. And in some sense, it is true, to co-opt Clement of Alexandria, God is like a river and pours out many streams. Rivers, however, must have a particular spring or bank with which they start to feed into these streams. For Christians, we must not look the Greek mythology or categories, but to the prophets. It is there that the prophets pray to God not to abandon them, for example such as in Nehemiah (chapter 1, verse 9); Is Nehemiah ignorant of the one true God? Is he being disingenuous? In either case, if we go with Team Zeus, we have no reason to trust Nehemiah’s testimony, do we? God chose out of mercy not to abandon the Israelites, but God was fully capable of doing so. But then in chapter 9, verse 28, Nehemiah describe the events of the exile as divine abandonment. What do we make of this?

One can even see in the words of Ezekiel that God took up God’s Shekinah presence, the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and left Jerusalem. King Saul was once filled with the Holy Spirit, and was a man who desired justice (1st Samuel 11) just as the God who chose him did, but what happened? Saul was disobedient and God’s Spirit left him (“Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul.” 1st Samuel 16:14). In each case, we see God is on the move. If a person doesn’t want to play by God’s rules, fine. God wipes off the dust off of God’s feet and leaves. Only in the context of divine mobility we see taught by the Hebrew prophets can we understand the fullness of Jesus’ cry of divine abandonment. Elvis has left the building; The Shekinah Glory has left the Temple (Jesus’ body) at the Cross. The Divine-Person, the Second Person in the Trinity now has the fullest experience of being human, that is experiencing the curse of Death. That is before breaking it, and remaining victorious over the Powers.

Lastly, I want to address the “pastoral” issue of divine abandonment. Now, one member of TZ suggests that we cannot tell a depressed person that God abandons people, for this would be offensive and not very hopeful. First of all, this is a TERRIBLE, condescending view of people who are suffering from depression. No one one whose read Scripture correctly would suggest God abandons people because of their emotions. No, in each and every case, God leave because of people’s moral choices. God’s being is not determined by how we feel. Such an emotional argument based on experience is very manipulative, and might I add, down right suspicious. The god of the Greek metaphysicians is a snowflake who couldn’t stand up to the passionate God of the prophets. The God we learn of in Scripture is incredibly free and mobile. The defense of divine mobility is a pastoral theology because God is free to move up and down, from heaven to earth, and back again; to the lowest rungs on the social ladder to the highest. God is free to be with humanity when we experience the most misery with victims and God is free to be with those who experience the joy of liberation and holiness. All of this is because of the freedom God chose on Golgotha.

Divine Freedom, Apatheia, and Gentile Politics

My friends and fellow Open Theists Tom and T.C. are having an excellent discussion on the attributes of God.  Last week, I wrote Open Theism, Moltmann, Patristic Thought and Divine Apatheia, and it was well received.  In so far as the Church Fathers and Mothers REDEFINED the Gentile doctrine of divine apatheia to mean the Creator God’s complete freedom to free humanity for a relationship with Godself, they are correct and have precedent in the Biblical narrative.  What one has to say at this point is that from a Gentile standpoint, God is ineffable, because we as Gentiles do not have access to the throne of YHWH except through Christ Jesus. At the cross, as Moltmann rightfully argues, God opens up the covenant to us Gentiles so that we may partake in life everlasting with the Triune God. So, in other words, just as the New Testament calls the New Covenant a better covenant, not because of anything intrinsic that we have done, but by Grace, YHWH has chosen to include MORE people to be in relationship with Godself (in line with passages like Hebrews 7:22, and 8:6, etc.).

If I may wax Jeanine from Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy, understanding the Christian life is like this: The Future Is For Those Who Know Their Place.  I have argued for years that Gentiles must know our place before we proceed forward with doing theology.  I haven’t changed that at all. What’s different is now I am finding Christian writers who have argued along the same lines, who were right under my nose.  The early Church Christians who appropriated items such as “apatheia” from their culture did so as a means to communicate with their culture, so they could relate and give witness to Christ where they stood. If there are better ways of communicating God’s freedom and dynamic sovereignty in our age, certainly we should try them, yes, rather than make Gentile concepts absolute and universal, and somehow beyond critique?

Tom helpfully clarifies my point about our Gentile context and the nature of apatheia when he referred us to Richard Beck’s 4 part series on Stoicism and Christianity from seven years ago.  If you have time, give it a quick read.  But here’s where the rubber meets the road. In part 1, Beck asked,

Are strongly relational notions of God morally and psychologically weakening us? That is, are these notions inhibiting apatheia?

Are many of our theological worries (e.g., unanswered prayer) the product of failures of apatheia? That is, rather than accepting our circumstance we wring our hands at why God is not answering us.”

So, critics of the doctrine of apatheia are reading their unanswered prayers onto God’s nature. What a humble suggestion!  Did Beck ever consider that the conclusion of critiquing divine apatheia lays as an answer to some of our prayers, rather than some spiritual failure on the part of Christians who disagree with him? Speaking of Christianity, while the series was entitled “Stoicism and Christianity,” part 2 was a citation of a Taoist parable. No New Testament or Hebrew Bible. Nothing about Christianity despite what the series was supposed to be about. What we have here is a little worrying. for those who care about Christian particularity, first and foremost.  Also just as worrying, as I may add, that a careless study of apatheia assumes that Taoist view of apatheia can be understood as compatible with Christianity as if they make same claims about the Triune God.  I find this disconcerting and problematic.  Like Clement of A, I see Truth as something where many streams lead to the same river, but I am not going to affirm light, Brogressive versions of imperialist pluralisms in order to whitewash real differences.

Part three of Beck’s series is his interpretation of Job (as a psychologist, not an exegete).  Beck speculates,

My thought is that the speeches in Job express the assumption that the God/Human relationship is, well, a relationship.”

Ummm what? We are have gone from just critiquing relational theologies as a “psychological weakness” to now “demonstrating” that God isn’t relational at all. Well, to throw this interpretation back at Beck and those who agree with him, Job wouldn’t have a proper relationship with YHWH because he isn’t a member of the assembly of Israel. Job is a Gentile, and must know his Gentile place in the story. Job must see God’s as ineffable to the extent that he remains ignorant of the God of the Exodus.

As we turn to the last post in the series, Beck discusses the idea of God as medicine, as the kind that changes us. Out of fear of a “hyper-personal” God, Beck uses an example of Buddhism, and turns the series not as one about Stoicism and Christianity, but Stoicism and God. I must ask, well, which God? And how do we Gentiles know who God is? The fretting of a “hyper-personal” or “hyper-interventionist” God as a source of human discontentment dismisses Jewish and Christian notions of God’s pathetic praxis in the world, inviting our participation in changing our circumstances. It is this liberating praxis of God that we can find our happiness and contentment rather than sitting idly by as we worship the Idol of apatheia. 

Open Theism, Moltmann, Patristic Thought, & Divine Apatheia

In a recent facebook group discussion, we have gone back and forth about the meaning of what does it mean for God to be impassible?  Does God really not suffer, and therefore is not able to relate to humanity? A current stream of polemics in BOTH conservative evangelical and mainline liberal Christian academia consists of making Platonism along with any other form of Greek philosophy to be enemy of the one, true pure biblical perspective. The use of this argument is valueable but it does have it limits. As Christians, we are to experience the world Pentecostally, in that God has reconciled all nations and tongues to Himself in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the Sending of the Holy Spirit to the Church to go through out the world. Each language, philosophy, academic discipline can be used for the glory of the Triune God. The confusion of Babel comes in when Christians, for example talk about capitalism as Christian freedom, or when the early Church Fathers appropriated the Gentile, philosophical writings of their contexts with words like “apatheia,” “immutability,” “impassibility,” and the like. How can the God who died on the cross be considered unchangeable and incapable of suffering in any way?

Pentecostal Hybridity [not syncretism, since cultures and languages are fluid, and they can change], leads to language barriers and conflicts, and yes, definitely extended debates. Christian engagement with the “world” [prevailing cultures] does require something more than nuance, it requires discernment. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are must examine the prevailing texts of the day, appropriate the good, and discard the bad by measuring them with the Cross. A while back, Open theologian John Sanders wrote a post on the Early Church Fathers on Hellenism and Impassibility. While in some of his published works, Sanders took a more critical stance on the Church Fathers’ and their appropriation of “impassibility,” Sanders is now arguing (rightfully) that the way the Fathers understood God’s impassibility was really quite different from Greek philosophy. Sanders notes,

“From the second through fourth centuries there was no standard definition of divine “impassibility.”[i] For Christian writers it did not mean that God was apathetic, distant, or lacked compassion. God did experience mercy and love. Christians disagreed with one another whether God experienced anger depending on whether or not they thought this emotion “fitting” for God. The word functioned in a couple of ways. First, it was a way of qualifying the distinction between creator and creatures. God is incorruptible while we are not. But we will be made impassible (incorruptible) in the eschaton. Also, we are prone to be overwhelmed by emotions, particularly negative ones, but God is not. Hence, it was used to safeguard divine transcendence (aseity) rather than deny psychological emotions to God. Second, it functioned to distance the Christian God from the gods of polytheism. They were passible in the sense that acted capriciously and lost control of themselves. In contrast, the Christian God faithfully loved, was patient, and acted consistently.[ii] Hence, it is clear that when the fathers said God was impassible they did not intend to rule out that he has emotions or that he is affected by and responds to us.”

This observation holds especially true, particularly when one looks at the corpus of one Clement of Alexandria. Clement worked really hard to distance the God of Christianity from the Roman imperial Egyptian divinities of his day. Clement understood the gods of that pantheon to be greedy, lustful, sexually immoral, and controlled by their desires; and of course, their worshippers followed in their footsteps. What Clement did was argue that God is apathetic to what these gods desired, that the God revealed in the Divine Logos-Person of Yeshua the Messiah was fully capable of controlling himself, and also served as the source of our holiness, our own participation in the divine apatheia.

Often dismissed often as a pantheist heretic and for his kenotic Christology, Juergen Moltmann in his The Crucified God: The Cross Of Christ as the Foundation And Criticism of Christian Theology, made similar arguments as John Sanders and Clement of Alexandria concerning divine apatheia. Our conversation starts on page 269,

“An examination of the discussion of apatheia in ancient Greece, Judaism, and Christianity shows that apatheia does not mean the petrification of men, nor does it denote those symptoms of illness which are today described as apathy, indifference, and alienation. Rather, it denotes the freedom of man and his superiority to the world in corresponding to the perfect, all-sufficient freedom of the Godhead. Apatheia is entering into the higher divine sphere of the Logos. […] Love arises from the spirit and from freedom, not from desire or anxiety. The apathetic God therefore, could be understood as the free God who freed others for Himself.”

For Moltmann, it is essential for Christian theology to have both apatheia and pathos (which we find in the Old Testament). Thus, Moltmann concludes about apatheia, “Christian theology can only adopt insight and the longing of Hellenistic apathetic theology as a presupposition for the knowledge of the freedom of God and the liberation of fettered man” (page 275) Contrary to the popular saying “freedom isn’t free,” freedom is free, and its source is found in the Open God of Liberation. Just as no one desire or emotion is able to claim the Triune God as its own, neither can any oppressive tradition or institution possess the freedom that the Christian has been given by the Creator.  In the words of Clement of Alexandria, “For God bestows life freely, but evil custom, after our departure from this world, brings on the sinner unavailing remorse with punishment.” (Sermon to the Greeks, Chapter 10).

The Crucifixion of God’s Son is the one true source of humanity’s liberty.  The God-Man’s death on the Cross must be seen as God opening up God’s covenant for all humanity. Undergirding this premise for Moltmann is his CORRECT observation that the downward pathos movement of YHWH can only be understood as part of the special revelation in the Hebrew Bible, and in God’s communion with Israel.

“Therefore, there is for it a direct correspondence between the pathos of God and the sympatheia of men. On the basis of the presupposition of election to the covenant and the people it is necessary only to develop a dipolar theology which speaks of God’s passion and the drive of the spirit in the suffering and hopes of man. This presupposition does not exist for the Christian, especially for the Gentile Christian. Where for Israel immediacy is grounded on the presupposition of the covenant, for Christians it is Christ himself who communicates the Fatherhood of God and the power of the Spirit. Therefore, Christian theology cannot develop any dipolar theology of the reciprocal relationship between the God who calls and the man who answers; it must develop a trinitarian theology, for only in and through Christ is that dialogical relationship with God opened up.”- Page 275, once more (Bold Emphasis My Own)

Moltmann’s move is a significant gesture, a critique of the Gentile imperial arrogance we know as natural revelation. Moltmann at once contextualizes himself in the story of the Crucified God as a German Gentile, and at the same time is able to articulate the narrative of God’s people (Israel) and God’s Messiah. Now, Moltmann goes on to argue that the beginning of Trinitarian history happens at Golgatha; I disagree. God’s own Trinitarian history begins with liberating Exodus event and the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word made fetal flesh. The history of full human participation in Trinitarian history begins with the Crucifixion, I would contend, since God sovereignly chose to embrace us ragged Gentiles into the salvific equation. The Openness of God for us begins with the sweet embrace of Jesus nailed to the tree.