The oxymoron in the tile of this work by Paul Gavrilyuk, currently assistant professor of historical theology, University of St Thomas, St Paul, Minnesota, is intentional. More precisely, it is the dialectics between two seemingly opposites, divine suffering and divine impassibility, as understood by the Fathers of the Church, that is the subject of this book, originally a dissertation at Southern Methodist University.
Part of the book’s project is polemical. Gavriliuk sets out to demolish what he terms the “Theory of Theology’s Fall into Hellenistic Philosophy,” propagated mainly by Adolf Harnack and still regnant in contemporary theology, according to which the doctrine of divine impassibility in Greek and Hellenistic philosophy was taken over uncritically by the early Fathers, and as a result, the biblical concept of God’s involvement in history, and especially the reality of God’s suffering in Jesus Christ, have been denied or at least eclipsed (for an exposition of this theory of theology’s fall, see pp. 176-79).
Gavriliuk first argues that a sharp distinction between the Hellenistic God who is apathetic and the biblical God who has emotions and suffers in history is a caricature of both Greek philosophy and biblical teaching on God. He shows that Greek and Hellenistic philosophies do not propose a single and uniform notion of an impassible God and that the Bible is quite alive to the dangers of anthropomorphism when speaking of an emotional and suffering God. Gavriliuk goes on to argue that even if the early Fathers took over the Greek concept of divine impassibility, they did not do so without baptizing it, and with plenty of water. In fact, for them, divine impassibility means something quite different from what Greek philosophers take it to mean. For the Fathers, divine impassibility means that the Christian God is not the same as the gods of the heathens in terms of emotions, that God’s care for human beings is not motivated by self-interest and corrupted by evil, that God is pure spirit and hence does not have bodily emotions, and that God is victorious over suffering. In this sense, divine impassibility serves as a “apophatic qualifier” ruling out those “passions and experiences that were unbecoming of the divine nature” (16).
In fact, according to Gavriliuk, the Fathers saw no contradiction between affirming God’s impassibility and the reality of God’s real suffering in the incarnation of the Logos and his death on the cross. This dual affirmation runs through all the early Trinitarian and Christological controversies, beginning with New Testament docetists and ending with Nestorius. Gavriliuk examines docetism, Patripassianism, Arianism, and Nestorianism and argues that these heresies commit the error of holding one truth and denying the other, either divine impassibility or divine suffering, whereas the orthodox theologians hold the dialectical and paradoxical both-and inherent in the arresting phrase “The Impassible suffered.” Among the Fathers, Gavriliuk highlights the teachings of his theological heroes, Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria.
Central to Gavriliuk’s thesis is that suffering must be attributed to the person of the Logos who is incarnated, and not to the divine nature which is essentially impassible, nor to the Father and the Holy Spirit. But it is precisely here that readers are left high and dry with further nagging questions: Granted that it is the Son who is incarnated and suffered, and granted that he is truly divine (beside truly human), what insights into the divine nature (and not simply into the person of the Son) does his suffering give? What kind of God is it if one of the divine persons voluntarily suffered and triumphed over suffering? And granted that the Father and the Holy Spirit are distinct from the Son and do not suffer (pace Patripassionism), are their relationships to the Son (and therefore their personhood) not “affected” by the Son’s suffering in history? Can one speak, as von Balthasar does, of a “supramutability” in God, and more precisely, in God’s immanent life due to an ever-greater intradivine liveliness (innergötterliche Lebendigkeit) of the trinitarian event of free love among the Father, the Son, and the Spirit? To say with Gavriliuk that divine impassibility functions as an “apophatic qualifier” is fair enough, but curious minds want to know more.
These questions are not intended to disparage the scholarly qualities of The Suffering of the Impassible God. It is clearly written, argues its case cogently, and can serve as an excellent guide to patristic theology of God and the Incarnation.