impassibility (was Re: Vienna cardinal draws lines in Intelligent Design row)

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Nov 22 2005 - 13:28:05 EST

Since the putative impassibility of God is getting more attention here I'm going to spread myself further than I did in my earlier brief remark

1) What should be determinative for this issue is not (a) a priori philosophical principles (whether of Aristotle, Whitehead or anyone else) which are not derived from scripture, (b) a consideration of abstract divine attributes, or (c) anyone's feelings about what kind of God he or she would like but (d) whether or not what we think enables us to say what needs to be said about the cross-resurrection event as something that involves both God and humanity.

2) While the issue of open view theism debated by Evangelicals has been brought into this discussion and has some relevance to it, that is not the most helpful way to get to the core questions. IMO it would be much better to look at the work done in trinitarian theology over the past ~ 60 years by Lutheran (Juengel, Jenson, Pannenberg &c), Reformed (Barth, Moltmann &c), RC (Rahner, Bracken, LaCugna &c) & Orthodox (Zizoulas &c) theologians. The works of Juengel & Moltmann, both of which begin with a theology of the cross, are especially valuable.

3) I get no commission for recommending Ted Peters God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in the Divine Life (Westminster/John Knox, 1993) & have done so several times here, but I'll do it again. It provides an excellent introduction to recent trinitarian theologies & anyone who wants to engage in these discussions would benefit greatly from reading it. Ted has long been involved in theology-science dialogue brings some relevant points from it into the trinitarian discussion. In particular, the fact that both modern physics and recent trinitarian theology have gone beyond the limits of substantialist metaphysics (i.e., the idea that reality is to be discussed in terms of things with static natures) is significant.

4) The RC material which Janice sent (see below) is an explanation of what I called earlier "classical christology," essentially that of Chalcedon. It says that the properties of each nature, & what is done or what happens to each nature, can be attributed to the single divine person, the hypostasis of the Logos in which the assumed human nature is hypostasized. I'll note just one perhaps picky point at the beginning, the reference to "the man" Christ. The assumed human nature of itself is anhypostatic, non-personal, and is "enpersoned" in the person of the Logos. Thus the RC Newman could say "Though Man, He is not, strictly speaking, a Man."

5) I highlighted earlier what seems to be a basic problem with this, that while we can say that the person of the Word suffered, we can't say that the divine nature of which that is one of the persons suffered. This seems at least very odd.

6) The statement below includes the following condemnation.

   There is no communicatio idiomatum between the two natures of Christ, or between the Word and the human nature as such or its parts. The fundamental error of the Ubiquitists consists in predicating of the human nature or of humanity the properties of the Divine nature. We cannot say that "the Word is the humanity", and still less that "the Word is the soul" or "the body of Christ".

    Their "Ubiquitists" link correctly connects this with Lutheran christology although it botches the history. In the debates about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Zwingli argued that the true body & blood of Christ could not be present in the Sacrament because Christ was seated "at the right hand of the Father." Luther's response was "The right hand of God is everywhere." I.e., in contrast to Zwingli's naive localization of the right hand of God, Luther pointed out that in scripture the term refers to God's effective power in the world, a power which is exercised everywhere. Thus the divine attribute of omnipresence is communicated to the human nature of Christ so that he can be (inter alia) present in the Sacrament.

    This then required an extension of the classical idea of communication of attributes, so that properties of the divine nature were communicated to the human nature.
This includes what the RC statement describes as "ubiquity," though that's a term that Reformed theologians critical of the idea used rather than Lutherans. Lutheran theologians also have rejected the statements in the last sentence of the RC condemnation.

    Because the theologians of Lutheran Orthodoxy accepted substantialist metaphysics & the idea of the impassibility of the divine nature, they said that the communication can't go the other way, from the human nature to the divine. Luther himself didn't always observe this restriction, & gets to the heart of the matter in the following passage.

    We Christians should know that if God is not in the scale to give it weight, we, on our side, sink to the ground. I mean it this way: if it cannot be said that God died for us, but only a man, we are lost; but if God's death and a dead God lie in the balance, his side goes down and ours goes up like a light and empty scale. Yet he can also readily go up again, or leap out of the scale! But he could not sit on the scale unless he had become a man like us, so that it could be called God's dying, God's martyrdom, God's blood, and God's death. For God in his own nature cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is called God's death, when the man dies who is one substance or person with God. ("On the Councils and the Church", Luther's Works, vol.41, pp.103-104.)

Luther is expressing this in terms of Chalcedonian theology but in speaking of "a dead God" he's clearly pushing its limits & in other places he goes beyond that. Marc Lienhard has described some of his statements as "dei-passianism." & in a word, I think Luther was right. He knew the classical metaphysics but wasn't bound by it. Instead he insisted as bluntly as possible on seeing the cross as God's involvement in our suffering and dying.

7) "God himself cannot die" & we ought to be careful about how we use phrases like "death of God" in connection with the cross. God did not simply cease to exist when Jesus died. Phrases like "death in God" (Moltmann) or God's "union with perishability" (Juengel) are preferable.

8) If God is not immutable (as suffering implies), it will be asked, how can we talk about God's eternity & other attributes? Fair enough. That's a question that needs to be discussed - & in fact has been by some of the theologians I mentioned earlier. (Jenson especially should be considered in this regard.) But again, we should start with the cross-resurrection event & then adapt concepts like eternity in light of that instead of the other way around.

9) Since the RC site includes an ill-advised condemnation, the following condemnation from the 5th Ecumenical Council may be relevant: "If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of glory and one of the Holy Trinity: let him be anathema."

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Janice Matchett
  Cc: Ted Davis ; Jr. D. F. Siemens ; Alan D CIV NSWCCD Philadelphia 9212 Mccarrick
  Sent: Tuesday, November 22, 2005 11:20 AM
  Subject: Re: Vienna cardinal draws lines in Intelligent Design row

  At 10:43 AM 11/22/2005, Ted Davis wrote:

    As already indicated, I am one of those who "find the doctrine of divine impassibility deeply unsatisfying." Open theism might not be true, but it's just too hard for me to reconcile the biblical picture of the suffering servant (which frankly I do take to be genuinely prophetic of the Incarnate God) with the WCF. .. I just can't anthropomorphize all of those figures of speech (some of them, yes, but not all of them). - Ted

  ### Communication of Idioms.

  A technical expression in the theology of the Incarnation. It means that the properties of the Divine Word can be ascribed to the man Christ, and that the properties of the man Christ can be predicated of the Word. The language of Scripture and of the Fathers shows that such a mutual interexchange of predicates is legitimate; in this article its source and the rules determining its use will be briefly considered.


  The source of the communicatio idiomatum is not to be found in the close moral union between Christ and God as maintained by the Nestorians, nor in Christ's fullness of grace and supernatural gifts, nor, again, in the fact that the Word owns the human nature of Christ by right of creation. God the Father and the Holy Ghost have the same right and interest as the Son in all created things except in the human nature of Jesus Christ. This the Son by Assumption has made His own in a way that is not theirs, i.e., by the incommunicable property of personal union. In Christ there is one person with two natures, the human and the Divine. In ordinary language all the properties of a subject are predicated of its person; consequently the properties of Christ's two natures must be predicated of his one person, since they have only one subject of predication. He Who is the Word of God on account of His eternal generation is also the subject of human properties; and He Who is the man Christ on account of having assumed human nature is the subject of Divine attributes. Christ is God; God is man.


  The communicatio idiomatum is based on the oneness of person subsisting in the two natures of Jesus Christ. Hence it can be used as long as both the subject and the predicate of a sentence stand for the person of Jesus Christ, or present a common subject of predication. For in this case we simply affirm that He Who subsists in the Divine nature and possesses certain Divine properties is the same as He Who subsists in the human nature and possesses certain human properties. The following considerations will show the application of this principle more in detail:

  (1) In general, concrete terms stand for the person: hence, statements interchanging the Divine and human properties of Christ are, generally speaking, correct if both their subjects and predicates be concrete terms. We may safely say, "God is man", though we must observer certain cautions:
    a.. The concrete human names of Christ describe His person according to His human nature. They presuppose the Incarnation, and their application to Christ previously to the completion of the hypostatic union would involve the Nestorian view that Christ's human nature had its own subsistence. Consequently, such expressions as "man became God" are to be avoided.
    b.. Concrete terms used reduplicatively emphasize the nature rather than the person. The statement "God as God has suffered" means that God according to His Divine nature has suffered; needless to say, such statements are false.
    c.. Certain expressions, though correct in themselves, are for extrinsic reasons, inadmissible; the statement "One of the Trinity was crucified" was misapplied in a Monophysite sense and was therefore forbidden by Pope Hormisdas; the Arians misinterpreted the words "Christ is a creature"; both Arians and Nestorians misused the expressions "Christ had a beginning" and "Christ is less than the Father" or "less than God"; the Docetists abused the terms "incorporeal" and "impassible".
  (2) Abstract terms generally stand for their respective nature. Now in Christ there are two natures. Hence statements interchanging the Divine and human properties of Christ are, generally speaking, incorrect if their subject and predicate, either one or both, be abstract terms. We cannot say "the Divinity is mortal", or, "the humanity is increated". The following cautions, however, must be added:
    a.. Aside from the personal relations in God there is no real distinction admissible in Him. Hence abstract names and attributes of God, though standing formally for the Divine nature, imply really also the Divine persons. Absolutely speaking, we may replace a concrete Divine name by its corresponding abstract one and still keep the communication idiomatum. Thus we may say "Omnipotence was crucified", in the sense that He Who is omnipotent (Omnipotence) is the same as He Who was crucified. But such expressions are liable to be misunderstood and great care must be exercised in their use.
    b.. There is less danger in the use of those abstract terms which express attributes appropriated to the Second person of the Trinity. We may say "Eternal Wisdom became man".
    c.. There is no communicatio idiomatum between the two natures of Christ, or between the Word and the human nature as such or its parts. The fundamental error of the Ubiquitists consists in predicating of the human nature or of humanity the properties of the Divine nature. We cannot say that "the Word is the humanity", and still less that "the Word is the soul" or "the body of Christ".
  (3) In statements which interchange the Divine and the human properties of Christ, care must be taken not to deny or destroy one of Christ's natures or its properties. This is apt to be done:
    a.. In negative sentences: though it be true that Christ did not die according to His Divine nature, we cannot say, "Christ did not die", without impairing His human nature;
    b.. in exclusive sentences: if we say "Christ is only God" or "Christ is only man", we destroy either His human or His Divine nature;
    c.. in the use of ambiguous terms: the Arians, the Nestorians, and the Adoptionists misused the term "servant", inferring from the expression, "Christ is the servant of God", conclusions agreeing with their respective heresies.

  No, I am not ROMAN Catholic, but I believe they are correct here. ~ Janice
Received on Tue Nov 22 13:31:03 2005

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