Does God Suffer?: Interview with Nicholas P. Wolterstorff

Monday, 16 Jul 2007

Once you pull on the thread of impassibility, a lot of other threads come along. Aseity, for example-that is, unconditionedness....One also has to give up immutability (changelessness) and eternity.

MR: What precipitated your interest in the doctrine of impassibility? Was it a theoretical or practical catalyst, or both?
NW: The classical doctrine of divine impassibility affirms that God is not affected by anything that transpires outside of God-by anything that transpires in God’s creation. In particular, it affirms that God is not negatively affected by any such happenings. God does not suffer; God experiences nothing like grief, no negative affects.

Three different considerations combined to get me interested in reflecting on whether this traditional doctrine is true. One of the areas within philosophy in which I work is philosophical theology. Over the years in working in this area, it became clear to me that though nowadays the traditional understanding of God is often presented as if it were an assortment of distinct and separate “attributes,” in fact, it is as far from being an assortment as anything could possibly be. The attributes were traditionally understood as hanging together in an extraordinarily tight and profound manner; pull out one, and most of the others come along with it. The picture that comes to my mind is of those sweaters knit in such a way that when you pull on one thread, the whole thing unravels before your eyes. Impassibility is one component in that tightly integrated traditional way of understanding God. My interest in the structure as a whole accordingly led me to become interested in eternity, in simplicity, in aseity (unconditionedness)-and then also in impassibility.

A second factor which sparked my interest in the doctrine was coming across a passage in John Calvin one day in which he speaks of the doing of injustice to someone as “wounding” God: when one wrongs someone that a person loves, one wounds that person himself. My reading of this passage occurred sometime during the late 1970s or early 1980s when I was intensely interested in issues of justice in South Africa and the Middle East; Calvin’s remark cast, for me, an entirely different light on my endeavors. To wreak injustice is to wound God; I had never thought of it like that. In speaking of injustice as the wounding of God, Calvin was obviously departing in a most dramatic way from the traditional understanding of God as impassible-though whether Calvin saw himself as speaking metaphorically or literally was not entirely clear to me at the time. In any case, what this experience did was give me an additional motivation for reflecting on divine impassibility.

No doubt, however, it was the death of our son, Eric, which proved the principal energizer. Any Christian who reflects on living with grief has to reflect on living with God in grief; and that immediately leads into the issue of impassibility. I knew the traditional picture: God surveys with uninterrupted bliss what transpires in this vale of tears which is our world. In the situation of my son’s death, I found that picture impossible to accept-existentially impossible. I could not live with it; I found it grotesque. Perhaps if I had firmly believed it was the correct picture I could eventually have brought myself to the point where I no longer rebelled against it. But by this time I had already, for more or less theoretical reasons, found the doctrine questionable; this experience pushed me over the edge, one might say. It did more than that though: it led me to reflect on the doctrine much more thoroughly and seriously than I had before. For I knew that in rejecting the doctrine, I was disagreeing with the greatest minds and hearts of the Christian church; I was not, and I am not, willing or even able to do that lightly.

MR: How would you summarize the development of impassibility as an element of the classical doctrine of God?
NW: One can discern two lines of thought leading the church fathers to their affirmation of the doctrine of impassibility. One consisted of ethical reflections shaped by the thought of late antiquity. We can take Augustine as prototypical. Augustine regarded it as a truism that every person seeks happiness as his or her sole end in itself; disagreement arises only on the means to that end. To attach one’s love to anything mutable, Augustine argued, was to run the danger of that thing changing or disappearing and thus bringing disappointment to one in its wake. Only if one loves the eternal, God, can one be assured of uninterrupted happiness. Yet in this present age it would be wrong not to desire the welfare of one’s fellow human beings, and accordingly, not to feel disappointment when that welfare is not achieved. Accordingly, we live in the hope of true happiness, in the age to come. But God already enjoys such happiness. Often Augustine rejects out of hand, as needing no argument, the suggestion that God suffers negative affect.

Yet he and his fellow theologians did have an argument. Negative affect, so he assumed, is something that happens to one-it overtakes one. It occurs when something in which one is invested disappears, or is threatened with disappearance. But the existence and character of God cannot be conditioned by anything outside of God. Reality is such that there must be something which is the condition of everything but is itself not conditioned by anything; God is that being. Hence God cannot “suffer”-that is, undergo-any form of negative experience.

MR: Aren’t there a lot of biblical passages which support impassibility and its related notions of immutability (changelessness), eternity, transcendence, and so forth? Can these texts, most of which come from the Old Testament, be charged with a Greek (especially Stoic) bias?
NW: There are indeed passages of this sort-though considerably fewer than one might think. Just to give one example: in his discussion of eternity in Summa contra Gentiles, Aquinas cites Psalm 101:13, 38, (1) in support of the doctrine: “But thou, O Lord, endurest forever;… thou art always the selfsame: and thy years shall not fail.” The passage to which the traditional writers return over and over again, as the most decisive, is Exodus 3:13-14, where God answers Moses’ question as to how he shall identify to his fellow Israelites the speaker in the flaming bush: “I am who I am.”

It’s my view, however, that none of the frequently cited passages is susceptible to the metaphysical interpretation placed upon them by the traditional theologians. When God is proclaimed as “always the selfsame,” what is meant is not that God is metaphysically eternal and immutable, but that God is ever faithful to God’s covenant. And when read in context, God’s answer, “I am who I am,” does not mean that God is pure being, as the tradition held, but that I, God, as who I have always been, namely, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But let’s also look at it from the other side. There are a few biblical passages which the traditional theologians have cited as supporting their doctrines of divine eternity, immutability, simplicity, and impassibility. But there are a good many more which appear to attribute change to God-God is spoken of as “repenting,” for example-and literally thousands which attribute emotion-predicates to God. Of course, the fathers had a way of interpreting these; one doesn’t refute their doctrine of impassibility simply by pointing to these passages. They knew their Bibles better than most of us do. Nonetheless, the surface meaning of these passages is that emotions are being attributed to God; the traditional interpretation needs good reasons for holding that they don’t mean what they appear to mean. In short, the great bulk of biblical passages appear to be against the classical conception.

The proper conclusion to be drawn, however, is that one gets nowhere on this issue by just citing proof texts; each side has ways of interpreting the texts which appear not to be on its side. There is no option but to engage in careful, serious theology and philosophy.

MR: It seems that this debate is bound up with the problem of evil, especially after the Holocaust: although we can’t help but come to Scripture in our own skin, our own time, place and experience, isn’t it also the case that Scripture can judge our experience and that many of these denials of impassibility surrender too much to the reader’s horizon?
NW: That’s always a worry: that we are distortedly interpreting Scripture in the light of our own experience. But it’s important to realize that the traditional theologians were also interpreting Scripture in the light of their experience; doing so is not some questionable practice which first emerged in the modern world. Augustine was interpreting Scripture in the light of a blend of Platonism and Stoicism which he found compelling-and in the situation where the Roman Empire, the only mode of government which anyone in the Mediterranean basin had known for a thousand years, was coming crashing down. His view of ideal personal existence, of God and human beings, had considerable social plausibility in that circumstance.

But I don’t myself accept, as a proper description of the situation, that we are to interpret Scripture in the light of our own experience. Rather, our challenge is to bring our interpretation of Scripture and our interpretation of experience into harmony with each other-regularly allowing Scripture to shape and correct our interpretation of experience, but also being open to the possibility that our experience will open our eyes to some part of Scripture. Let me add that I don’t think it’s the massive tragedies of the twentieth century that have been the main factor in making many of us question the doctrine of impassibility; Augustine was well acquainted with tragedy. I don’t question that that has been a contributing factor; nonetheless I think it has mainly been the slow loosening of the grip of Platonism and Stoicism on the Christian mind that has brought about the change.

MR: What would you say to a parent who has just lost her daughter in an apparently meaningless tragedy and believes that the only thing she can hold onto is the conviction that God is not a victim along with her?
NW: I would say to her that though God is as much grieved by the death of her daughter as she is, God is not a victim. I think we have to have the Christian courage to say forthrightly that things have gone awry in the world; things are not as God wants them to be. Which of course is why God has set about redeeming humanity and the world. The biblical picture of God is simply not that God surveys with undisturbed bliss what transpires in the world; this is the picture of the philosophers. The biblical picture of God is that God is dismayed by what is happening, and that God is engaged in battle with the forces of evil. Recall the pervasiveness of battle metaphors when Scripture describes God’s relation to the world!

What Christ’s resurrection means is that the victory in this battle belongs to God. The powers have been led captive. That’s why I say that God is not a victim. God is the ultimate conqueror-against all those forces that dismay and oppose God.

MR: The previous question raises the issue of Christology. So many arguments on both sides of this debate seem to be more interested in an abstract “God” than in the triune God who has been revealed in Christ. Isn’t it enough to say that God is involved in our suffering because the Son became incarnate, but that because Jesus was and is God, he is not trapped in suffering and can, therefore, conquer for us? If a firefighter is trapped with the victim in the elevator of a burning building, there may be moral support, but doesn’t one really need rescue from someone outside the elevator?
NW: The question suggests, if I understand it, that Christ suffered in his human nature but not in his divine nature; and that was, indeed, the traditional view. But I don’t think it’s correct. The fact that God is grieved does not imply that God is not and will not be the victor. It’s God’s being grieved by what has gone awry in this world that motivates God’s engagement in the battle. My view is that Christ suffered in his person, not just in his human nature. And that the Father suffered in and with Christ’s suffering.

MR: What other components of classical theology would have to be revised or rejected in the light of divine suffering?
NW: Once you pull on the thread of impassibility, a lot of other threads come along. Aseity, for example-that is, unconditionedness. The biblical witness seems to me clearly to be that God allows himself to be affected by the doings of the creatures God has created. What led the traditional theologians to affirm aseity was their philosophical argument that the world is such that it can only be explained if we postulate a being which is the condition of everything but itself, itself being conditioned by nothing. To give up aseity is then to give up a certain argument for God’s existence. But that argument is questionable in any case.

One also has to give up immutability (changelessness) and eternity. If God really responds, then God is not metaphysically immutable; and if not metaphysically immutable, then not eternal.

A good many of the current objections to the classical concept of God strike me as “cheap shots.” I regularly tell my students that I will not allow them to take cheap shots against the tradition; they have to earn their right to disagree by working through the tradition and understanding it at its deepest level. Every now and then when they do take what I regard as cheap shots I say to them: “Would you still say what you just said if Augustine were sitting right across the table from you?” Or Anselm, or Aquinas, or Calvin? In short, it is our duty to honor those forebears in the Christian tradition. That said, I do think, nonetheless, that those forebears took some wrong turns, and that impassibility was one of those.


Email Address
Forgot Password?
Signup for an account now