September 30, 2010

The Impassibility of God and the Church Fathers

By Dr. Robert Duncan Culver


Impassibility comes into our language as translation of the Greek word apatheia in the writings of Church Fathers, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Apatheia, despite the obvious etymological connection with apathy and apathetic in modern English, (Pelikan) started out as meaning "the state of an apathes" (alpha privative, plus pathos) "without pathos or suffering" (Liddell and Scott Lexicon). Among the Greek Fathers pathos or passion was the right word for the suffering of Christ, as it still is. So in theology to be impassible means primarily to be incapable of suffering. Early theology affirmed that in heaven our resurrected bodies will be apathes in this sense. The word came to be extended to mean incapable of emotion of any kind and beyond that, apathes (impassible) in important theological discourse meant without sexual desire (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, chap. xxxv, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 1910, ii, 5, pp. 502-504). As applied to God, incapacity for any emotions sometimes is meant. We will return to this. The twelfth canon of the Second Council of Constantinople (553, Fifth Ecumenical) seems to say Christ on earth was impassible in the sense of "longings (passions, presumably sexual) of the flesh" (Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. R. J. Deferrari, Hersler Book Co., 1954, 224).

In this paper I am interested mainly in the question of whether or not the divine nature is capable of emotion, including, in a secondary way, the experience of suffering.


There was no difference of opinion on this subject among orthodox theologians of the ancient Church. Even Tertulian, perhaps the most antiphilosophy theologian among important early writers, vehemently opposed the notion that God could suffer pain. Reading of the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great) in preparation for a paper on the post-Nicea (324) apologetics of orthodoxy sparked my notice of uniform and vehement agreement of Christians on God's impassibility. In January of this year (1996) I carefully read J. N. D. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines. He confirms that all the Fathers, including even most heretics, strongly believed the divine Being is impassible. (See pages 84, 120, 122, 142, 143, 169, 291, 299, 372, 314, 317, 322, 325, 476, 488). This issue colored every aspect of efforts to clarify christology at the first four ecumenical councils (Nicea 325, Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431, Chalcedon 451). Nobody orthodox denied impassibility and even the heterodox acknowledged it. They did not separate impassibility from divine simplicity (mentioned more frequently) but regarded it as a necessary aspect of simplicity. They did not cite Aristotle's unmoved mover, Plato's eternal forms or anything of the sort. Their arguments were based mainly on the usual biblical texts we still today cite to teach God's immutability (Psa 102:27; Is 40:10; Mal 3:6; Js 1:17). Simplicity, that is, God is not composed of parts, was then as now, established logically. Anything composed of parts is the sum of the parts, each of course less than infinite. Any number of finite parts do not add up to infinity. Since God is infinite, as established by scripture and demonstrated by reason, God is simple, not compound or complex. The three members of the Trinity each possesses the Godhead fully. They are not three thirds - they are a trinity of God not three gods.

At this point I want to anticipate charges that the early church fathers corrupted a pure biblical doctrine of a loving, personal God through introduction of Greek speculative philosophy. Let us hear what they said about this charge.

A sophisticated Christian theology which employs formal logic, precise definitions and elegant literary techniques, as some of the ancient theologians did, does not constitute betrayal of the Gospel treasure. The early theologians nevertheless had to defend themselves against those who thought it was a betrayal. Irenaeus, while insisting "the faith" is "one," yet explained that theological refinements were of value. In Against Heresies he says, "Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside . . . by means of their craftily constructed plausibilities draw away minds of the inexperienced . . . I have felt constrained to compose the following treatise in order to expose their machinations" (I, 1). These "certain men" are later named. Most of them were highly educated scholastics, wise in their own eyes, whom Irenaeus felt he had to meet, not entirely on their own ground, but in such a way as to provide his readers sufficient skill and knowledge to rescue themselves from these so called "gnostics" - not a term of derision then but more equivalent to our "experts" or "intelligentsia." His book is strewn with the language of these people. So to answer these errorists some skill (he does not call it philosophy) is helpful. They should not be allowed to get away with doctrinal murder, so to speak, just because they are cunning and eloquent (I, x. 2, 3). More importantly, by such skill "one may [more accurately than another] bring out the meaning of those things which have been spoken in parables, and accommodate them to the general scheme of the faith; and explain [with special clearness] the operation and dispensation of God connected with human salvation . . ." (I, x. 3). [Above citations are all from Antenicene Fathers, I, 315-331).

Christian theology was not "as Harnak tried to maintain, the product of encounter between Gospel and Hellenism. It is not the Hellenisation of Christianity. It was not the fruit of speculation but sincere effort to use the techniques of the learning of the day to elaborate Christian truth" (J. Danielou, Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture, p. 303).

Clement of Alexandria had to face opposition from those who opposed any employment of philosophical learning. He said they "prefer to block their ears in order not to hear the sirens" and that Christians as a whole "fear Greek philosophy as children fear ogres - they are frightened of being carried off by them. If our faith (I will not say our gnosis [knowledge]) is such that it is destroyed by force of argument, then let it be destroyed; for it will have been proved that we do not possess the truth" (Danielou, p. 304,305).

Clement asserted that philosophic learning has many positive uses. He really means theology which employs the techniques of learning - which we would now call systematic theology (Danielou, 306-322).

The climax of ancient consolidation of orthodoxy was in 451, at Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council. Jaroslav Pelikan devotes several pages merely to summarize the impassibility doctrine as expressed in the Fathers before the Fourth Ecumenical Council (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, pp. 52-55). I shall not quote this at length as I did in a paper earlier this year. Rather, since the climax of consolidation of orthodoxy came at Chalcedon 451, the Fourth Council, let me cite two learned Fathers whose views on Impassibility coincided quite exactly and whose views were specifically endorsed and incorporated in the Definition and Canons of that Council. The letters of each were read at the Council and essentially adopted as the doctrine of the Council; hence passed into received orthodoxy of the Church from that day to this.

Neither was present and neither expressly addressed the Council. Cyril's dogmatic letter addressed the heresy of Nestorius and was written to Nestorius twenty years earlier. Leo's letter (The Tome of Leo) was addressed to Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople two years before the Council. Both Epistles were read, weighed and vigorously endorsed at Chalcedon.

Cyril's letter had been first addressed directly to Nestorius just before the third Council (Ephesus 431) because it was he who was deemed to be dividing the church through denial that Mary gave birth to incarnate deity. Cyril's Epistle to Nestorius was then read at the third Council. It had a positive effect in winning that council to the orthodoxy of 325 and 381. But shortly trouble arose from another quarter. Eutyches, an old archimandrite at Constantinople promoted the doctrine "not only that after His incarnation Christ had only one nature but also that the body of Christ is not of like substance with our own" (Kurtz, Church History, I. 334). This and other problems made a fourth council (Chalcedon 451) necessary.

So Cyril's letter was read again at the later council. I quote some relevant portions of Cyril's letter:

"We say that he 'suffered and rose again.' We do not mean that God the Word suffered in his Deity . . . for the Deity is impassible because it is incorporeal. But the body which had become his own body suffered these things, and therefore he himself is said to have suffered them for us. The impassible [God] was in the body which suffered" (Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed., 1963 p.67).

(The article on Cyril in Smith's six-volume Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology and Geography, vol 1, p.918, right column says Ephrem of Antioch speaks of a now lost treatise by Cyril on impassibility and another on suffering.)

The Tome of Leo was read by his representative. Hold in mind that the doctrinal problem being addressed was to define the incarnation of the Son of God. As Cyril's letter was intended to correct Nestorius, Leo's Tome was intended correct Eutyches. I cite several portions related to impassibility.

"While the distinctiveness of both natures was preserved, and both met in one Person . . the inviolable [divine and impassible] was united to the passible, so that . . . the same 'Mediator' might from the one element be capable of dying and also from the other be incapable [of dying]" (Ibid, 255).

"The Lord of the universe allowed his infinite majesty to be overshadowed, and took upon him the form of a servant; the impassible God did not disdain to be passible Man, and the immortal to be subject to the laws of death" (Ibid, 256).

"To pass by many points - it does not belong to the same nature to weep with feelings of pity over a dead friend [Jesus over Lazarus] and, after the mass of stone had been removed from the grave where he had lain four days, by a voice of command to raise him up to life again" (IbId, 256).

In the first excerpt passibility is said to be part of Man's nature but not of God's. In the second the same idea is enlarged in elegant language which says that as God was impassible and immortal - hence as incapable of suffering as of dying. In the third, as God the Son our Lord was "incapable of feelings of pity," such as He expressed when He wept at Lazarus' tomb. "Incapable of feelings of pity" means impassible in the sense of incapable of emotion.

At this climax in the doctrinal consolidation of Christian antiquity the report of Session II goes on to say:

"After the reading of the foregoing epistle the most reverend bishops cried out: 'This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles . . . . Piously and truly did Leo teach, so taught Cyril. Everlasting be the memory of Cyril . . . . This is the true faith.'"

In all of Christian antiquity I was able to find only Origen among the learned, orthodox writers who dissented from this view. In a book on early Christian doctrine, Gods and the One God by R. M. Grant (Westminster, 1986) the author shows that Origen's early views promoted the Christian consensus that God is impassible (pp. 91,92) but late in life of about 69 years (185- 254) taught that God is passible (Grant, 92,93). Grant comments, "Apparently the threat of Patripassionism did not bother Origen, at least at this point" (p. 93). (Grant's documentation seems to be incorrect, so I could not check his references, but I have no doubt he is correct in his report of Origen.)


Enlightenment and liberal critics and historians blame the influence of Plato and other Greek philosophers, but I propose a compelling reason in the fact that in scripture God is most forcefully and grandly said to be supremely "blessed."

This occurs ten times in the New Testament, eight times employing eulogetos, used only of God in the New Testament. I cite two of these, Romans 1:25 and 9:5. The first refers to "God . . . the Creator, who is blessed (eulogetos) forever. Amen." The second speaks of "Christ . . who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen." (See also Mk 14:61; Lk 1:68; II Cor 1:3; 11:31; Eph 1:3; I Pet 1:3.) The first two refer to Jehovah God; the others to the "Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." In Mk 14:61 the high priest is employing "the Blessed" as a very old circumlocution for Jehovah and in II Corinthians 11:31, "he who is (eulogetos) blessed for evermore" is undoubtedly the familiar Septuagint rendering of Exodus 3:14 "I am ho On" (I am the one who is). It seems to me relevant to the "impassibility" of God that eulogetos means "blessed," that it renders baruk throughout the LXX and seems to refer to the joy of God in heaven and of those whom God has blessed there. In Christian theology and hymnody "blessed" is the standard word for the joys of heaven, unmixed with pain or sorrow (Rev 21:4). I noted this in every appearance of "blessedness" in Calvin's Institutes, for example.

Twice in the New Testament the word makarios is used of God, both times by Paul, (viz.: "the glory of the blessed God" (I Tim 1:11) and I Timothy 6:15,16, a peroration of Paul: "the blessed (ho Makarios) and only potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; who only hath immortality." Though I shall not carry my argument far in this paper, the evidence from eulogetos and makarios has impressed me that we need not give up the impassibility of God. God transcendent in heaven and immanent in all creation is supremely happy (a synonym of blessed), always has been so, and for ever will be.