The Suffering of the Impassible God (Paul Gavrilyuk)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Gavrilyuk, Paul. The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gavrilyuk rebuts the claim that the early church simply adopted Hellenistic views regarding God and impassibility (if and to what degree does God suffer). In his opening chapter Gavrilyuk demonstrates that the early church could not have adopted the prevailing Hellenistic view on divine (im)passibility because the Hellenists themselves differed greatly on what they meant by the term.

This static "Greek" view of God is contrasted with the wildly anthopomorphic version of the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Theology and the Fathers adopted the Hellenistic view of God, so goes the argument, instead of the Biblical view. While this view is standard liberal German theology, one cannot help but notice similar remarks coming out of some biblical theological circles. Indeed, some conservatives are not immune to this danger.

The problem with this view is not simply that the Greek views contradicted one another, as noted above (meaning there is no overarching "Hellenistic" view of Divine Impassibility), but also that the "wildly Hebraic Scriptures" contained passages that appear to be contradictory per divine impassibility on first reading (contrast Jonah with the verse that says "I, the Lord God, do not change" and "does not repent"). Of course, there is no final contradiction in Scriptures; only that a surface level reading of Scripture does not lend itself to the "wildly Hebraic God."

Obviously, we see that the category of "divine impassibility" cannot be used as a blanket category. What does divine impassibility mean? It is usually taken to mean that the divine nature (or sometimes a divine person--heretics often confuse person and nature) does not suffer in one sense and/or any sense. On a more broad level it could mean that the divine nature/person does not engage in anthropomorphisms.

The early Christological heresies held to a strict form of divine impassibility. The heretics understood that Christ was either divine and/or participated in the divine nature; therefore, Christ could not have really suffered on the cross (Docetism), been of the same divine nature as the Father (Arianism), or had a real participation in humanity's suffering (Nestorianism).

Docetism and the Sufferings of the Martyrs

The ancient world was scandalized by the idea that men would worship a suffering god. If Christ were divine, he was not so during the Crucifixion, so the Docetists reasoned. The church met this attack on several fronts. They responded to Gnosticism arguing that creation was from God and that God used material means for our salvation. Hence, it was not shameful for God to participate in human birth and death, if that were to restore us to incorruptibility (88). Still, at this point in the Christian narrative, it was not entirely clear how the divine nature participated in the Cross (89). There were pointers: The Son, not the Father, suffered. Thus, the Church reasoned that the divine nature did not suffer "nakedly" but through the Son. It was not always clear, though, how this went about.


Gavrilyuk surveys a number of different interpretations of "Arianism" (104-114). Despite the nuances of Arianism, and acknowledging the basic textbook definition (which is essentially correct), Arius had a desire to protect the transcendence of God, and more pointedly, to remove him from any hint of suffering or change (129-130). It is quite likely the Arians agreed that the Son suffered. In fact, Gavrilyuk frames the debate this way: the passible Son was inferior in essence to the impassible Father. He was generated and subject to suffering (130). Arius did not want to affirm a God who suffered in Christ, but that God did not suffer in Christ or apart from Christ (131). The key issue, then, is divine impassibility.

But for the orthodox divine impassibility functioned a different way: it was a negative characteristic that did not preclude God from acting in the world (132). Divine impassibility functioned as a sign of the Logos' full divinity (similar to how Divine Simplicity functions), but this attribute did not imply that the Logos acted apart from Christ (133). The Logos was involved in human sufferings but the divine nature was not diminished by them.

The last point is a major point that functions as a lens for viewing the Christological controversies. We go back to the role of apophatic qualifiers. Terms like "Divine Simplicity" and "Divine Impassibility" are not meant to be taken in an absolute and unqualified sense. With regard to the latter, it does not mean that the divine nature forever and always remains "untouched" (and passibilist theologians are often unclear as to how suffering affects the divine nature), but that the divine nature/divine person is not overwhelmed by them. Divine impassibility, as Gavrilyuk makes clear throughout the book, does not mean that God never suffers or has human emotions. It means that God is not overwhelmed by suffering nor is he subject to improper human passions.

Maybe. That is Gavrilyuk's argument. I am not 100% convinced it is coherent at this point. If the divine nature is above all perturbations, it is not immediately clear how such a nature could engage in "proper human passions." It is true that the divine nature is not overwhelmed by suffering. As it stands, though, that statement is too vague.


Gavrilyuk (rightly) draws upon John McGuckin's work on St Cyril. What was Nestorius' goal? Gavrilyuk clears away a lot of the debris left by modern scholarship on Nestorius (including the nonsense that he did not believe the theology attributed to him). Nestorius and Theodore took proper pious responses concerning transcendence and impassibility and brought them to a bizarre consistency. We can summarize many of their goals this way:

1. The divine action in the Incarnation did not bring God qualitatively closer to creation in any way (142).

2. Christ's two natures must be seen as a conjunction, not a union (and represent the separation between created and creator.

C. Therefore, the man assumed and the God who did the assuming must be thought of separately. As Gavrilyuk maintains, "It was impossible [on Theodore's gloss] for the divinity to participate any way in the sufferings of the humanity" (Gavrilyuk, 143).

Admittedly, St Cyril responded to Nestorius using often paradoxical categories. According to our modern sensibilities, he is not playing fairly. It seems as though we are holding Nestorius to logical consistency but are allowing Cyril to deal from the bottom of the deck. Even so, Cyril can (and Gavrilyuk does not stress this point all that much) run a deconstruction on Nestorius's system. Since Nestorius denies that the Divine Logos is the subject of all Incarnate acts, but rather sees God merely indwelling a man, Nestorius's system is identical in principle to Arius'. Neither of them allow the Logos BOTH fully divine status AND fully human experiences. What's the difference, on Nestorius' gloss, between God indwelling the holy saints and God indwelling Christ? Simply a matter of degree, not kind. This is simply respectable Arianism.

Cyril, and through him the Church, responds that God the word did not suffer nakedly, but since in the Incarnation something new happened for ontology: real human experiences* can be predicated of Christ (who is the Divine Logos) (156).

The key to the union (henosis) lies in the emptying (kenosis). What happened when the Logos emptied himself? Nestorius said that the emptying of the Logos was simply the conjunction of the human nature to the divine (Gavrilyuk, 158). For Cyril, however, it was God's descent to the limits of humanity and allowing these limits to have dominion over him.


Gavrilyuk is not using the word "dialectic" in a Hegelian sense. He is simply showing the process of how the Church sharpened its vision concerning who Christ is. Each debate focused the issue more intensely. Some questions were left unanswered after Cyril, like the two wills of Christ.

Gavrilyuk does a fine job outlining his thesis and keeping the historical scope under control. The actual text of the book runs for 180 pages. The narrative is always tight and Gavrilyuk rarely pursues tangents. On the other hand, one feels that Gavrilyuk could have examined the historical controversies in slightly more detail, but that is a minor complaint.
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