Thursday, March 3, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Theopaschitism

This week's heresy, theopaschitism, is my all-time favorite heresy...to combat. I think that's because it's the most prevalent heresy in contemporary Christianity--so much so that, according to Michael Ward, it's been labelled "the new orthodoxy." Parts of this week's discussion stem from Ward's sermon in the book Heresies and How to Avoid Them, of which he is an editor. That's been the general guide for this series, and I rely particularly heavily on it this week. That's because Ward does as good a job as anyone I've ever read at describing why a strong, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity eliminates the need for contemporary Christians to hind behind theopaschitism--a cop-out of the more difficult but more powerful belief in God's impassibility. More on that below...

First, orthodoxy. Since it's earliest days, the Church (note the capital "C") has taught that God is impassible--not able to suffer or experience emotion. As Ward describes it, "God can't be changed from without...and can't change himself from within, specifically...from a better to a worse state, that change we call suffering." As you will recall from our discussion of the first four heresies, this one of those core beliefs that often led heretics into trouble. For example, the Arians erroneously thought, "If God is impassible, how can he die on the cross? Jesus must not be of the same substance as God." Yet we have concluded that Jesus is indeed identical with the second person of the Trinity, of the same substance and nature as God the Father, and so is also impassible--at least in his divine nature. But Jesus is also fully human, which means he can suffer in his human nature. But is that good enough?

As Ward lays out theopaschitism and its three-fold attack on orthodoxy, he outlines how philosophy, scripture, and experience all suggest that God might indeed be capable of suffering with us--that the divine suffers both as Jesus dies on the cross and, more generally, in response to the sufferings of the created order. For a detailed discussion of that three-pronged attack, please see the PowerPoint slide show below or Ward's chapter in Heresies and How to Avoid Them. One particular area of concern, however, is worth addressing here.

In response to the horrors of WWI and WWII (and partly in response to Einstein's work in general relativity and the philosophical developments that accompanied it), modern theologians began to assert more and more strongly that God does indeed suffer in his divine nature. The unanswerable question they propose in support of their claim is haunting in its interrogation: "How can God watch 8 million of his people die at the hands of the Nazi's and not suffer with them?" J├╝rgen Moltmann, whom Ward quotes, held that "Any other answer would be blasphemy." And one can see why that would be the case. (Even if it is heresy.)

Although Ward does an excellent job of discussing the role of the Trinity in redeeming orthodoxy (see below), he doesn't explain thoroughly why theopaschitism, "the new orthodoxy," leaves us wanting. Essentially, it comes down to this: If God can suffer (become subject to the created order), how can he redeem us from our suffering? If we're counting on God to save us from our pain and suffering in any real way--which is to say in some capacity other than simply enduring our pain with us--God cannot also be subject to the same suffering we endure--at least not as God. If we are to enter an existence (heaven, paradise, etc.) where suffering is no more, then we must be certain that God is not subject to the pains of the world. Otherwise, all he can promise us is eternity spent in redemptive pain, which is no paradise at all.

Where is God's love for us, who suffer so greatly, if he is unable to feel our pain? As Ward expertly describes, it is in nature as love. God doesn't simply love us. God is love (1 John 4). He subsists as three persons (Trinity) eternally complete and perfect in love. God is relationship--a relationship of love. God's eternal and unchanging nature is love, which means that, even though God cannot suffer in his divine nature as we suffer in our human nature, his love for us is still assured. His love is not responsive to us--he doesn't love us more when we are good or less when we are bad. His love is always complete and perfect. In fact, as that last point suggests, if God were able to suffer, he would not be complete in his love. He would become subject to the creation--able to be influenced by us and our actions. If he suffered when innocent victims suffer, then he must withdraw a degree of his love from the perpetrator of such suffering. And that is not God. That is not love.

Jesus, as God incarnate, shows us a different sort of suffering--not divine suffering as divine, but divine suffering as human. As God united his divine nature to the human nature in the person of Jesus Christ, God invited onto himself suffering as human. Jesus suffered in his human nature. God suffered like us--as a human suffers because of the incarnation. That's a radical thing to say--and it comes very close to ridiculousness (heresy), but that's the boldness of our faith. God became human. God suffered as a human. As Ward points out, it makes no sense to us for God to suffer as God. What good would that be anyway? We need to look at a savior who suffers in the same way we do, not artificially.

There's a lot more to it, and I imagine it's easy for one to say "God doesn't suffer" when one hasn't experienced much suffering. Perhaps you'd like to comment--either personally or theologically. If so, please do.


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