Byzantine Mosaic of Christ the Pantokrator as a young man in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Aidan Charron

The development of Christianity was one that scandalized the ancient world, in part for its antithetical practices to Roman society at large, but most of all for its central claim: that their incarnate God had been killed by crucifixion and three days later had been raised from the dead. It was not necessarily the fact that someone had been raised from the dead that confounded the ancients, as ideas of a resurrection of the dead or an afterlife were not uncommon. Rather, it was the assertion of the Christians that God had not only become a genuine human being, but also was killed. These claims challenged the widely held notion that to be divine was to be impassible, that God or the gods were unable to be affected by external forces. Passibility is the opposite of this. Impassibility means that not only could God not be killed, but also he certainly could not be affected or have affections in the same way a human could. Yet even as Christian theology developed, and most of all Christology, which concentrated on the human and divine natures of Christ, ancient ways of thinking still permeated Christian modes of thought. Although the help of many ancient philosophies was beneficial, this idea of divine impassibility created an obvious conflict for Christian thinkers: how could God be impassible when he was revealed to have been incarnate and affected?

In this paper I will be examining the origins of impassibility as being antithetical to Judeo-Christian modes of revelation, namely with regard to Alvin Plantinga’s formulation of warranted faith. From there it will be seen how we know God through Karl Barth’s distinction of the economic and immanent Trinity and its implications for impassibility; in addition, we will examine how to make sense of Barth’s distinction through his successor Jürgen Moltmann. Finally, a look at how Linda Zagzebski’s formulation of omnisubjectivity can support this form of passibility. 

When the Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered the Ancient Near East, a process known as Hellenization took place in those territories. This meant conquered cultures were pressured to assimilate into Greek culture and customs, which included adopting Greek philosophy. Judaism wasn’t given an exemption from this, and many Jewish thinkers syncretized Jewish theology with Hellenistic philosophy. The most notable development of this syncretization is the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into a Greek volume. However, Paul Gavrilyuk admits “that the Bible ascribes to God a much wider range of human emotions than any philosophically minded pagan of the Hellenistic period would ever find appropriate.”1 It is clear that the purpose of coloring God in this way is to communicate to his chosen people that he has personal concern for their affairs. Yet in the translation of the Hebrew Bible, many passages which originally portrayed God as being anthropomorphic (possessing human characteristics) and anthropopathic (possessing human feelings) were altered in its Greek translation. The reason for this can be attributed to the dominant philosophical convictions of Hellenistic society, like that of Epicureanism in particular. Epicureans, like Jews, believed gods to be anthropomorphic. However, the Epicureans rejected the Homeric depictions of the gods, and rather depicted them to be “strangers to suffering; nothing can cause them any joy or inflict on them any sufferings from outside.”2 It was then the goal of life to achieve “divine happiness by not being influenced by externals.”3 Epicureans believed achieving this meant imitating the gods’ impassibility and so rejecting any affections and emotions, or pathē. This rejection meant resisting being involved in external affairs, the purpose of which was to avoid feelings of anxiety or anger, and curiously, benevolence, or charity (charis). To be involved in external affairs meant caring for others, which could lead to weakness in the form of happiness, fear, or dependence on another person. Accordingly this philosophy denied any human-divine interaction, for the interaction with passible creatures would mean that they would become anxious and unhappy; the impassible and passible should therefore be separate. 

The Judeo-Christian narrative, however, is a clear contradiction of this separation. It is clear that the God of Abraham cares deeply and is intimately involved in the lives of his people. The Incarnation is evidence of this contradiction, as well as the idea of passions. Passions, as thought of in the Hellenistic tradition “were thought of (naturally enough) as passive, something that happens to you, something you undergo, rather than something you actively do. You are subject to anger, love, joy, and all the rest.”4 Yet, it is clear that God is an active participant in Israel’s history, and a significant one at that. Granted, there are points at which passions are affected upon an individual, which is only natural, as Plantinga notes. This is no different for God as an active participant in human affairs. 

Whereas Plantinga, in trying to refute impassibility, uses Aquinas’ conception of God as “pure act” to rebut the Greek conception of passivity, I think this solution is ineffective, leaving God still impassible. For one, if we are trying to distance ourselves from Hellenistic thinking, which first asserted divine impassibility, it does us no favors to use Aquinas, as his theology is  too heavily influenced by Aristotelian philosophy, which too easily lends itself to divine impassibility and is still a foreign addition to Christianity. Additionally, Plantinga, in asserting that God is “pure act,” is consistent with that idea in saying that God “doesn’t ‘undergo’ anything at all; he acts, and is never merely passive; and he isn’t subject to anything.”5 Yet this is still impassibility. 

Plantinga’s reason for rejecting impassibility is to uphold Jesus’ suffering on the cross, but he is inconsistent with regards to God’s affections. However, the biblical account of God’s interaction with humankind paints a picture of a God who is affected, both actively and passively. Plantinga agrees that teaching on impassibility “is one of those places where [tradition] has paid too much attention to Greek philosophy and too little to the Bible.”6 Too, though, God’s activity contradicts the typically held convictions about divine impassibility, even when there are instances that portray God as impassible. Gavrilyuk admits that “once the biblical materials are treated as the church’s canon … an attempt to draw together various biblical representations of divine agency is not only appropriate, but also theologically inescapable.”7 The following explores how this query has been handled epistemologically.

Rather than defending passibility by critiquing the origins of impassibility as being inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian conception of God as it is revealed in scripture, a better case can be made for passibility when its merits are directly considered, the approach which will henceforth be taken through the work of Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann. Barth argues that God is free to choose passibility due to the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity; his successor, Moltmann, takes this distinction even further by asserting that God is passible because we only experience him by the economic Trinity, essentially obliterating the distinction. 

Karl Barth was one of the greatest theological minds of the twentieth century whose exhaustive Church Dogmatics set the tone for a new theological era which emphasized the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the main mode of theological interpretation. In emphasizing Jesus Christ, dialectical theology, as it is termed, combated natural theology in its attempt to reconfigure our understanding of God based on the Word of God; this meant rejecting the idea that God could be proved as scholasticism sought to do. In accordance with this conviction, Barth made the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity in his Church Dogmatics

The immanent Trinity is God as he is in himself, whereas the economic Trinity is God as he is in the world, as we experience him and as he is revealed through Jesus Christ with the Father and Spirit. The immanent and economic Trinity enable Barth “to speak of the triune God as impassible and passible at the same time.”8 God’s immanence means that he is sufficient in himself — hence his satisfaction in speaking his word to himself. Furthermore, God’s sufficiency means that he is totally free, he is able to do whatever he elects to do. Yet in his free grace he opens himself up to us. It is because of his immanence that he immerses himself in the world and engages with the finite. Paul Fiddes writes based on Barth’s distinction that “the God who is impassible in himself can also be passible in the world.”9 God’s freedom in his immanent tri-unity is essential here. If God is essentially immutable, eternal, and impassible, he is also totally free. Barth writes,

He is absolute, infinite, exalted, active, impassible, transcendent, but in all this he is the One who loves in freedom, the One who is free in his love, and therefore not his own prisoner. He is all this as the Lord, and in such a way that he embraces the opposites of these concepts even while he is superior to them. 

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. IV.1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T & T Clark), 1956, 187.

Rather than contradicting himself by embracing opposites, it is within God’s capacity because he is both free and sufficient to be both impassible and passible. T. F. Torrance, a student of Barth, notes that this embrace of opposites was one of the early Church’s core convictions about God. Much effort was exerted in the Church’s infancy to prove that Jesus Christ was at once divine and human, two seemingly opposite states of being. Yet this had to be, for their salvation relied on it. Torrance asserts this could only be if God was triune, for God was crucified, while remaining God. That is, it was the Son who died, not the Father or the Spirit, even though they were still involved in his death and resurrection. This is why, Torrance says, it was “clear to Cyril of Alexandria that because of the hypostatic union of the divine Nature and human nature in the one incarnate Nature or Reality of the Son of God we cannot but think of the passion of Christ as taking place in his indivisible divine-human Person.”11 For if God did not suffer in his humanity, nor redeem us in his divinity, then we would not be at all saved; it is in Jesus Christ the Son that God’s impassibility becomes passible so that our own passibility can engage with his eternity.

Barth’s distinction between the economic and immanent, as effective as it is for the purposes of nuance in debating impassibility and passibility, still presents an epistemological problem: specifically, the distinction which preserves God’s freedom. The question of what it would look like if God elected not to choose us as covenant partners then arises; this is what the immanent Trinity seeks to preserve. Yet even in Barth’s framework this is inconceivable, as “we can only think of God in the way he has actually chosen to be,”12 which is in his economic relationship with us. Fiddes notices that this conflicts with Barth’s own thought, seeing as how 

we cannot begin to think of God as suffering without us, for there could be nothing in God by himself which could give rise to suffering. The suffering of God is the test case which shows up the oddness of saying that God ‘need not have done so’ if he is what he chooses to be [namely, passible]. 

Fiddes, The Creative Suffering, 120.

Still, Barth preserves this sentiment in his keeping of God as impassible in the immanent Trinity. 

Jürgen Moltmann’s contribution is helpful here, as Moltmann is staunch in his attempt to, for a lack of better words, “unify” God’s activity in himself and our world. This means Moltmann “is highly critical of any attempt to divide the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity.”14 The crux of his argument is that the distinction made by Barth between the immanent and economic is too closely tied to distinctions made about God and the world. For example, it is too close to a metaphysical differentiation, like that of the world being passible and God being impassible. Rather, Moltmann insists that the distinction between God’s immanence and economy must be made “through his own self,”13 for the metaphysical distinction “imposes limitations on the triune God which are laid down, not by him, but by human experience in the world.”15 The problem with this distinction is that we run into problems such as impassibility itself, like how an impassible God can suffer through his Son, or love his creation. It must be, instead, that the economic and immanent Trinity finds its distinction in the persons of the Trinity itself. Moltmann finds the solution to this conundrum in Christ, and more specifically in the Crucifixion of Christ. He says, 

[T]he meaning of the cross of the Son of Golgotha reaches right into the heart of the immanent Trinity. From the very beginning, no immanent Trinity and no divine glory is conceivable without “the Lamb who is slain” … Anyone who owes his salvation to the delivering up of the Son to death on the cross can never think of God in the abstract, apart from the cross of Christ.

Moltmann, The Trinity, 159.

For Moltmann, the cross of Christ breaks down the barrier between God’s economy and immanence because Moltmann believes that our experience of the cross as salvific leads us to the understanding of God’s nature. The immanent Trinity is communicated to us through the economic Trinity by the cross so that we come to a knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. So, if it is true, as dialectical theology posits, that Jesus Christ is the prime revelation of God because he is God, and Jesus Christ dies, then God is passible. Moltmann argues that this means that the immanent Trinity is the substance which is revealed in the economic Trinity by the cross, for the cross stands “within” the economic and immanent Trinity, so that the immanent and economic Trinity are the same. It is for this reason that Moltmann says “the thesis about the fundamental identity of the immanent and economic Trinity of course remains open to misunderstanding  as long as we cling to the distinction at all, because it then sounds like a dissolution of one in the other.”17 Rather, the Trinity’s work in the economy of salvation is one that “completes and perfects itself to immanent Trinity,”18 as the one must correspond to the other and vice versa. In the cross we experience the Trinity suffering both in the world and in itself because God “remains God in that he suffers most deeply.”19 

What Moltmann’s furtherance of Barth’s Trinitarian distinction does is leave another problem unsolved: if there is no distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity, and the cross of Christ is the bridge between the two, how does Christ’s suffering in his human nature enable this to happen? It has traditionally been held that Christ only suffers in his humanity, as suffering in his divinity would compromise that nature. However, recent epistemological theology may be able to answer how Christ’s passibility transcends his humanity. The idea of omnisubjectivity, as developed by Linda Zagzebski, is the idea that in his perfect empathy God is able to perfectly know what it means to take on the subjectivity of any individual. This is the “mechanism of God’s noetic and emotional mutability.”20 Because the conscious states of humans change, God experiences temporal change in his experience of human qualia. Now, since the suffering of Christ was a temporal event experienced by the human Christ, Christ, in his divine nature, is able to know “what it is like to suffer as a human being because Christ qua divine adopts a first-person perspective of his own human suffering.”21 In his omni-subjectivity, God is passible both humanly and divinely. This idea is also consistent with Moltmann’s idea of passibility, as God is both passible in the world and within himself.

It is clear that the subject of divine impassibility is confusing and inconsistent. The very heart of Christianity brings into question what it means for God to suffer and how such an event can be salvific. It is further complicated when grappling with the origins of impassibility as being external to Christianity despite scripture’s inclusion of the concept. Even in spite of this, solutions to the problem have relied on the revelation of scripture as revealing the Trinity and Jesus Christ’s centrality in that revelation. Karl Barth’s work in trinitarian theology has shown that God is free to be passible, as his sufficiency in the immanent Trinity allows himself to be open to communion with humans, thus sacrificing his impassibility in the economy of salvation. Moltmann takes this further by blurring the distinction between economic and immanent by focusing on Christ’s suffering and its joining of the two together, thus showing God to be passible in both. Furthermore, we are able to show epistemologically how it is that Jesus Christ’s dual natures suffer if God is omni-subjective, being able to know in his divine nature what it is like to suffer in his human nature and in perfect empathy suffer, too. While I do not believe all of these arguments are conclusive, they show how we know God to suffer for our salvation.

Aidan Charron ’24

Aidan is majoring in Christian History and Theology, and Philosophy and minoring in Classics. He is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We thank Dr. Joseph LaPorte (Philosophy) for his guidance with Aidan’s piece.

Table of Contents

1 Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxcord: Oxford University Press, 2004), 37.

2 Gavrilyuk, The Suffering, 23.

3 Gavrilyuk, The Suffering, 23.

4 Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 319.

5 Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 319.

6 Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 319.

7 Gavrilyuk, The Suffering, 39.

8 Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 115.

9 Fiddes, The Creative Suffering, 115.

11 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 247.

12 Fiddes, The Creative Suffering, 120.

13 Fiddes, The Creative Suffering, 120.

14 Fiddes, The Creative Suffering, 135.

15 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Trinität und Reich Gottes (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 159.

16 Moltmann, The Trinity, 159.

17 Moltmann, The Trinity, 160.

18 Moltmann, The Trinity, 161.

19 Fiddes, The Creative Suffering, 137.

20 Chester DeLagneau, “Omnisubjectivity and Passibility: A Defeater to Thomas G. Weinandy’s Rejoinder Against Divine Passibilism” (term paper, Fuller Theological Seminary, June 14, 2013), 12.

21 DeLagneau, “Omnisubjectivity and Passibility,” 18.

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