A Couple Notes on Process and Relational Theologies and the Problem of Evil

Pedro_Fernández_-_Christ_Suffering_-_WGA07807Over 20 years ago Ronald Goetz noted the “Rise of a New Orthodoxy” when it came to the doctrine of God being taught in academic theology. God’s immutability, (changelessness), and impassibility (inability to suffer or be acted upon from without), was axiomatic in patristic, medieval, reformational, and even early modern theology, but over the last 100 years a sea-change occurred and an acceptance, even a championing, of God’s passibility or mutability has largely been accepted. Goetz points to four causes, one of which is the problem of evil and suffering in light of the horrors of the 20th Century. (If God is all-powerful then he can stop evil. If all-good then he wants to. Evil. Therefore, no God.) After surveying them, he comes back around to the problem of evil in order to point out the weakness of two sorts of passibilist responses.

One comes from the limited God of Whitehead’s very influential process theology:

If God is conceived as being limited in power, though perhaps unlimited in love, then the defense of God in the light of evil and suffering boils down to the contention that God has created the greatest amount of good that he can, and the evil that remains is beyond his capacity to eliminate. A limited deity of this kind is portrayed in contemporary Whiteheadian-process theology, but the doctrine has a distinguished pedigree going back at least as far as Stoicism. A fundamental assumption in this approach is that an imperfect world is better than no world at all. What is unique to the Whiteheadian version of the limited deity is its departure from the classical Western view that God cannot be affected by the pain of an imperfect world. Indeed, as a seal of God’s goodness and love, God is, in Whitehead’s lovely phrase, “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”

The problem of evil has traditionally been formulated this way: How can it be that God is all powerful and all good and yet there still is evil? The doctrine that God is limited in power solves the problem by sacrificing God’s omnipotence. However, to my mind, any concept of a limited deity finally entails a denial of the capacity of God to redeem the world and thus, ironically, raises the question of whether God is in the last analysis even love, at least love in the Christian sense of the term.

All assertions of a limited deity must confront the fact that, if the world’s imperfections are the inevitable consequences of the limited capacity of God to create a world that is both perfect and free, then inescapably any other realm of being, any eschatological reality, would be similarly flawed. The blessing of eternal life would thus be impossible, for an eternal life flawed by imperfection and suffering would not be redemption, it would be hell. Hell is the prospect of wallowing forever in one’s weakness and finitude.

In Whitehead’s philosophy, the creation of the world is the result of God’s primordial yearning for a concretization of merely abstract possibilities (reminiscent of Plato’s “Ideas”) , which Whitehead calls “eternal objects.” Until they are arranged and concretized in the world, these eternal objects are merely abstractions. God’s primordial nature is governed by a “yearning after concrete fact — no particular facts, but after some actuality.”

The other pole of God’s bipolar being, his “consequent nature, “is characterized by a dependence on the continual emergence of concrete reality or “actual entities” in the world. Actual entities are perpetually perishing and arising. Each successive actual entity is capable of using in its own development the entities that have preceded it. God alone is everlasting. And his being is constituted in the process of his taking into himself all that he is able to save of all actual entities. They thus have a kind of immortality in the memory and in the ongoing self-enrichment of God. But the personal existence of all actual entities perishes. God wills the best for us and is a sympathetic sufferer with us when, in the course of the enrichment of his being, we suffer tragedy; but God alone is the everlasting beneficiary of the creative process.

To modern “protest atheism,” the fact that God, though sympathetic with the suffering of humanity, is nonetheless enriched by it, would seem little more impassive than the bathos of the sentimental butcher who weeps after each slaughter. If the purpose of our life and death is finally that we contribute to “the self-creation of God,” how, an outraged critic of God might demand, does God’s love differ from the love of a famished diner for his meat course?

Whitehead’s process God is, if anything, even more implicated in the evil of evil. Goetz moves on then to insist that if the incapable God doesn’t help, then the kenotic God–”kenotic” being used in a very specific, not-quite-NT-sense–doesn’t help much either:

To my mind, the insistence on the almightiness of God and creation ex nihilo are indispensable for an adequate understanding of the Bible’s witness, both to God’s lordship and to his capacity to save what he has created. Without the Bible’s eschatology, the God of the Bible cannot be understood in terms of agape, the radical self-giving love of one who holds nothing back — not the life of his son, not the sharing of his own being.

But this understanding puts us back on the horns of the dilemma: If God is so powerful in creation and so willing ultimately to deify the creation, why is there now evil?

Two lines of defense have become popular among theologians who find themselves, for whatever reasons, unable to speak of God as ontologically limited and yet unable to affirm the predestinarian highhandedness of an impassible, immutable God.

The first is the so-called Irenaeian theodicy (after the second-century theologian Irenaeus) : God permits suffering and evil in order that by them we might come to sufficient maturity so as to be able to inherit eternal life. The problem with such an argument is that while it offers a very helpful insight into the question of why we suffer and endure hardship, it says nothing about real evil. For real evil, as we experience it, does not build up and develop its victims; it corrupts, corrodes and destroys them.

The other line of defense can easily incorporate the Irenaeian theodicy, and indeed, might even seem to strengthen it. In this view, the statement “God is love” is virtually synonymous with a kenotic (self-emptying) (Phil. 2:7) view of the incarnation. God’s love is supremely revealed in his self-humbling. God is a fellow sufferer who understands not because God cannot be otherwise, but because God wills to share our lot.

Here, as in the case of a limited doctrine of God’s being there is a certain immediate psychological comfort in the notion that God does not require of us a suffering that he himself will not endure. However, if this comfort is to be any more than a psychological prop, it must show how God’s suffering mitigates evil. This explanation has been, to date, curiously lacking in the theodicy of divine self-limitation.

To anyone who feels compelled to affirm divine suffering, the fact that God is deeply involved in the anguish and the blood of humanity forces a drastic theological crisis of thought vis-à-vis the question of evil. The mere fact of God’s suffering doesn’t solve the question; it exacerbates it. For there can no longer be a retreat into the hidden decrees of the eternal, all-wise, changeless and unaffected God. The suffering God is with us in the here and now. God must answer in the here and now before one can make any sense of the by and by. God, the fellow sufferer, is inexcusable if all that he can do is suffer. But if God is ultimately redeemer, how dare he hold out on redemption here and now in the face of real evil?

-Ronald Goetz, “The Suffering God–The Rise of a New Orthodoxy”, This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 16,1986, p. 385

In other words, a suffering God of the sort implied by the passibilists is the God whose redeeming power is in serious doubt and the fact that he feels my pain just isn’t enough sometimes. I want to know that there is a reason for it. I want to know that there is a secure end to it. I want to know that it’s redeemable.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. If you want my explanation impassibility and how that relates to Christ’s suffering on the cross you can go read it here.

5 Ingredients to Being A Good Theologian

StAugustine

St. Augustine — patron saint of theologians, sore eyes, and brewers. No wonder the Reformed love him.

As a part of my reading during this Lenten season I’ve chosen to finally hunker down with Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Suffer?–a theological defense of the doctrine of God’s impassibility. God’s wired me to worship through my engagement with systematic theology, so I figure deep meditation on the issue of God’s immutable nature in light of the reality of sin, suffering, and the cross are just the ticket. Only two chapters in I can see why Kevin Vanhoozer listed it as one of 5 of the best books on the doctrine of God for theological students to engage with. He is nothing if not a model for Christian scholarly engagement.

Using primarily the words of its best advocates, Weinandy first reconstructs one of the strongest presentations in favor of passibility I’ve read yet. I even started to doubt my own newfound impassibilism (which is saying something after the amount Moltmann that I’ve read.) Thankfully he moves on to make a stunning case for the traditional doctrine. Still, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this level of fairness, honestly, and intellectual integrity in a theological teacher.

Weinandy then moves in the next chapter to sketch his own understanding of the theological enterprise. In it he lays out 5 “ingredients that help foster and encourage the theological enterprise, and so help define the task of the theologian.” (pg. 27)

So according to Weinandy, what makes for a good theologian?:

  1. Theologians Reason About Faith - “First within the very nature of Christian revelation is the principle that faith seeks understanding…Christian theologians, their reason guided by faith and the light of the Holy Spirit, clarify, and advance what has been revealed by God, written in the scriptures, and believed by their fellow Christians.” (pg. 28) The theologian is to use the reason he’s been given, in submission to the Holy Spirit in order to elucidate what has already been revealed in such a way that it can edify and bless the community.  It is both an exercise of faith and reason, in precisely that order. It is reasoning about what we have accepted by way of God’s revelation–thinking more deeply about what we have believed in God’s testimony about himself. 
  2. Theologians Calm Down and Make a Case - “Second, Christian theology also wishes to defend, by reasoned argument, what has been revealed against those who question, distort, or attack it.” (pg. 28) There is a real place for reasoned ‘polemics’, or persuasive argument. Weinandy goes on to say that this shouldn’t be done with an attitude that assumes any and all questioning is made in bad faith or with hostility, or that doesn’t recognize the benefits of theological controversy. We would not have the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definitions if the theologians of the Church were not forced to think more deeply on the mystery of Christ because of the doctrinal controversies in those early centuries. The point is, theologians make a case.
  3. Theologians Connect the Dots - “Third, Christian theology also wishes to demonstrate the inter-relationship between the various truths of faith.” (pg. 29) Weindandy gives the example of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In thinking through what it means for Jesus to be the eternal Son of the Father, the Church had to think through a bit more clearly what it meant to be a “Son” and what it meant to be a “Father.” Or, for that matter, what we mean by the idea of a person at all. No doctrine can be examined abstracted from the whole, but must be set within the full body of Christian doctrine otherwise it loses its proper shape. In other words, it’s not a bad thing for theologians to be “systematic” about things.
  4. Theologians Don’t Fly Solo - “Fourth, the work of individual theologians is not done in isolation. Theologians work within an historical context and within the Christian community.” (pg. 29) All good theologians stand on the shoulders of those who have come before them. Wanna make sure you’re a crappy theologian who runs into heresy? Do whatever it takes to remain ignorant of Christian history and the history of doctrine; never read or consider the teachers of the church in other times or places who have wrestled with the subject matter you’re studying. For the rest of us, we need to understand that neglecting the studies and advances in understanding that the Church has made over the centuries in our theological reflection is like trying to reinvent the wheel instead of trying to make it smoother. That is not to say that in certain times and places, the church can’t make advances in our understanding of doctrine (for instance the 4th century on the Trinity, or the 5th on the person of Christ, or the 16th on justification, or even now on the doctrine of impassibility) it is to say that it’s unwise to try and fly solo theologically.
  5. Theologians Worship - “Fifth, personal prayer and communal worship likewise foster theological understanding. Liturgy is a living expression of what is believed and so through participation in it one grows in an understanding of the faith.” (pp. 29-30) As the old expression goes, lex orandi, lex credendi, (the law of prayer is the law of belief). Weinandy points to the fact that in the past liturgical practices, the concrete worship of the church, shaped and gave the raw material of theological explanation. This was certainly the case in Basil the Great’s arguments about the full divinity of the Holy Spirit in the 5th century. Beyond this, we can’t begin to think we’re truly speaking of God, reasoning about the faith, if our own faith isn’t growing through a worshipful encounter with the Triune God. If theologians are not worshippers, not personally involved with the God they’re speaking of, then they’re trying to approach the task from some sort of neutral, 3rd-person perspective, describing the faith in the way a sociologist or ethnographer would. That might make for some interesting texts in religious studies, but not good theology.

There’s more to be said about the task of the theologians. I’m sure many of you have your own suggestions (feel free to suggest some in the comments.) Still, for those aspiring theologians among us, these are a good place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Beauty of the Impassible God (Or, Is God an Emotional Teenager?)

For some reason I’ve become interested in the much-maligned doctrine of the impassibility of God over the last couple of years. What is the doctrine you ask? Simply put, it is the idea that God cannot be made to suffer change from without or be overcome with passions. Ever since the early Fathers this has been the standard teaching of the Church: God is not subject to passions. I first found out about this idea in college when reading Jurgen Moltmann’s classic, The Crucified God in which he argues, among other things, that for God to be impassible in light of the world’s suffering and evil would make God wicked. In fact, in light of the cross of Christ where the Godman suffers death and alienation, it’s absolutely blasphemous. Instead, the Bible presents us with a passionate God who suffers alongside of us, who bleeds, who dies, and who understands our pains–because isn’t that what love does? In this account, impassibility is a hold-over from Greek philosophy that crept in and corrupted the pure, Hebrew view of the dynamic, living God of Scripture and turned it into the conceptual idol of the frozen absolute valued by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.

This view, that of the passible God, has become the “New Orthodoxy” that has been growing apace in academic and popular theology since the earliest part of the 20th Century, especially with the rise of process theism, open theism, and panentheism. Impassibility is also generally rejected in various quarters of Evangelical theology that cling to largely traditional doctrines of God, with John Stott citing Moltmann on this point with approval in his great work, The Cross of Christ. Now, given that I first came across the doctrine of impassibility at the tender age of 20, without any real knowledge of historical theology, or most of the reasoning behind the thinking of the Fathers in articulating this doctrine, it’s not hard to imagine that I whole-heartedly rejected it as nonsensical and the silly invention of “Greek” theologians and their systematizing ways.

Luther said that for the Christian all of life is repentance. I’ve come to find out that holds true not only in moral terms, but also intellectual ones. Suffice it to say that after reading some significant criticisms of passibilist criticisms from biblical, theological, philosophical, and historical-theological angles, I’ve come back around to affirming a form of the doctrine of impassibility. Key thinkers who helped me along this path have been Kevin Vanhoozer, David Bentley Hart, and Paul Gavrilyuk.  Kevin DeYoung also has a helpful article summarizing key points.

I’m not going to attempt to cover all the relevant points or even come up with as helpful of a summary case as DeYoung has. I simply wanted to offer up some quick, semi-connected, but inevitably unsystematic correctives of popular perceptions about the doctrine as well as offer some reason to find this doctrine beautiful along the way. In doing so, I will be depending heavily on the account offered in Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology, pp. 387-468. Needless to say, this will be hopelessly incomplete. Any insight that is helpful or intelligent is probably his. Anything silly or reductionistic is probably mine.

Clarifying Thoughts on Impassibility

Not a Rock - It is often charged that the doctrine of impassibility leaves us with an emotionless rock of a God. From the outset it ought to be made clear that to teach that God is impassible is not to deny that God has an emotional life with cares, joys, loves, and so forth. Impassibility does not mean impassivity any more than immutability means immobility. Both are caricatures and misunderstandings of the classical doctrine. Just as the doctrine of God’s immutability or changelessness is not a teaching about a static, stone God, but a God so perfectly overflowing with life that any “change” could only tend towards a lesser state, so the doctrine of impassibility is statement about the perfection of God’s emotional life, his sovereignty over it, not its absence. Anybody who teaches otherwise, both critic and advocate, has been misled on the subject. In the early Fathers, to teach that God was impassible was to teach that God did not have “passions”, or unrestrained feelings ungoverned by reason or will that could simply sweep over him. A passion was thought of as a sort of violent, semi-physical force that could move a person without the consent of their reason or will, or a sinful inclination. To deny that this can happen is to say that God’s emotional life is under his own control and will not erupt violently in irrational or sinful ways. God is not an emotional teenager.

The Bible? - What about those passages in the Bible that talk about God’s very strong feelings about things? What do they point to if God is not a passionate God? Are they “merely” anthropomorphisms that don’t “really” mean what they say? The Fathers and the medieval tradition made a distinction between ‘passions’ and ‘affections.’ An affection is a sort of controlled emotion that is subject to the will and mind of the one having it. It is a rational emotion that does not overcome the person, but is in line with the will. God has affections such as kindness, anger, etc. which he can display. The passages in the Bible talking about God’s anger, kindness, grief, and so forth are pointing to something real in God–his affections, the emotional life of the God of Israel. They are not “mere” anthropomorphisms, even though they are anthropomorphic. They are real descriptions, though not to be taken in a literalistic fashion, of God’s emotional life.

What’s An Emotion Anyway? - One point that clouds this discussion and makes it hard to conceive of God having emotions that are not passions, is that often-times we don’t have a clear understanding of what an emotion is. Kevin Vanhoozer draws attention to the fact that there are various theories on offer as to what an emotion is, but the split is between two basic types: non-cognitivist and cognitivist understandings. Non-cognitivist theories of emotion stress the pre-rational nature of an emotion such as the physical rush associated with fear or anger, which we then attach to cognitive content. Vanhoozer points out a few problems with that. First, God is spiritual, not physical. He cannot have an adrenaline rush with a flush of the face, a flaring of the nostrils, or moistening of the tear-ducts. For us to ascribe emotions to him on this view is to ascribe a body. The second problem with this is that with fear or anger, I feel the rush precisely because of what I believe about a certain situation or action. Third, a lot of emotions “feel” the same physically, like anger and fear, but the only thing distinguishing them is the cognitive content. Fourth, it’s hard to ascribe praise or blame to the way people feel if it’s just a physical reaction. But we seem to think that some feelings are praiseworthy and others are blameworthy. For these reasons, (and a few others), its best to opt for a cognitivist understanding of emotion.

On a cognitivist view, an emotion is a judgment or an attitude that one takes about something.  It is a concern-based, value-laden judgment about a state of affairs. My fear and happiness are flavored understandings about situations or persons that I am concerned with. Given my humanity my loves, jealousy, or fear can be both passions that I suffer as well as affections. We are both patients and agents with respect to them. God has perfect emotions, affections not passions, because his value-laden judgments are true and accurate ones. God’s love, jealousy, wrath, compassion, and kindness are involved judgments, ways of “seeing” with the heart that inclines him towards action of some sort but do not overwhelm him.  They do not incline him towards evil and they cannot sweep over him because they are fully-consonant with his perfect knowledge and will.

At this point some people might be thinking that this makes a sort of sense, but not something you’re willing to buy into too quickly. These highly cognitive emotions seem too distant from our everyday human experience.  In response, Vanhoozer would remind us that “the similarities between God’s emotional life and ours exist in the midst of an even greater dissimilarity, one that marks the infinite qualitative distinction between Creator and creation, Author and hero.” God is God. We might be made in his image, but God’s reality is a whole ontological step up from ours. We should expect things to be a little different up there. Just as God’s sense of personhood will be different than yours given that he exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while you exist as you, it’s unsurprising that his emotional life is a little beyond us.

Sovereign Relationality - A further consideration connected to impassibility is that there is nothing outside of God that is beyond his control. Those agents or situations about which he feels things are not outside of his will or agency. Given creatio ex nihilo, even with a strong view of libertarian human agency, God is not subject to his human creations. His feelings in relation to them are not things which he must passively suffer but ones which he actively chooses to endure. They are not imposed on him from without, but sovereignly accepted. Passibilists might point to passages like Hosea 11:8, where God speaks to Israel, saying that he cannot bear to be parted from him, that his heart recoils within him at the thought of extinguishing him in judgment. The thought is that here human subjects exert a force and cause a change, or suffering in the emotional life of God from without. It must be remembered that these statements are uttered within the context of a covenant relationship which God freely and sovereignly entered into without force or compulsion. God did not have to save Israel. God did not have to covenant with a people. God was not forced to create. He is under no threat to save. Therefore, the situations that he involves himself in, about which he has these value-laden judgments like anger, sadness, etc, are situations over which he is sovereign and in control.

The Incarnation–Chalcedonian Solutions  – “All this theological logic-chopping and conceptional analysis is fine, but what about the cross? Doesn’t that show that God suffers? What sense does it make to say that God is impassible if Jesus is God and Jesus truly suffers on the cross?” This is where a little Chalcedonian christology comes to the rescue.

The classic answer developed by theologians like Cyril of Alexandria is that while it is appropriate to say that the Son suffered on the cross, we make it clear that God the Son suffered in his humanity, which is capable of suffering. Because we confess the unity of the Godman, that this man, Jesus Christ, truly is the Eternal Son, it is true then, to say that God suffered, but only in the soul and flesh of the Godman. If we begin to take suffering up into the divine nature, then we begin to render the incarnation a pointless gesture. If God can suffer in his own nature, then why assume human nature at all? In a sense, it is true to say that the lover wills to suffer alongside the beloved. But without impassibility we lose the wonder of what God has done in Christ–he who knew no suffering in himself, willed to become as we were so the he could experience it alongside of us. We too often forget that nobody takes Jesus’ life from him–even in his humanity, the Son lays down his life of his own accord. (John 10:18) He is sovereign even over his death and “suffering” at the human hands he empowered to crucify him. (John 19:11) What’s more, he did so, not just to “feel our pain”, but in order to end it. There is some comfort when we read that Christ is a sympathetic high priest who knows of our temptations (Heb 4:15), but as Vanhoozer reminds us, the true comfort of the verse comes when we read that he did not give in to the temptation, but overcame it for our sake in order to cleanse us from our sins giving us free access to the throne of grace. (4:16; Heb 2:17-18)

The Beauty of the Impassible God

In the end, the doctrine of impassibility affirms that God did not incarnate himself of necessity to relieve his own unbearable suffering. His existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one of perfect, unconquerable, and impassible “light, life, and love.” (Vanhoozer) Instead, in Christ, he freely, willingly, and sovereignly endured suffering, actively making it his own, so that ours would be put to an end. To affirm God’s impassibility is to confess that God’s action in Christ is nothing other than the beautifully gratuitous outpouring of his invincible, unsurpassable, enduring love for his wayward creatures–it’s the foundation of grace itself.

Soli Deo Gloria