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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte
Keating, James F., and Thomas Joseph White [Eds.]
Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering.
Grand Rapids-Cambridge: Eerdmans 2009. X, 357 S. gr.8°. Kart. US$ 45,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6347-8.
Aaron T. Smith
This collection of essays developed out of a symposium held at Providence College, Rhode Island, in March 2007, bearing the same title as the book. It is composed primarily of contributions from selected conference speakers and respondents – Thomas G. Weinandy, O. F. M. Cap., Robert W. Jenson, Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Bruce L. McCormack, Trent Pomplun, Paul Gondreau, Bruce D. Marshall, David Bentley Hart, and the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, S. J. The book features two additional pieces by Gilles Emery, O. P. and Gary Culpepper, and an introductory essay by the editors.
The introduction by Keating and White identifies three lines of inquiry with which discussion of divine impassibility, or whether God is capable of passio (suffering), is concerned. These are the problem of metaphysics, the role of Chalcedonian Christology, and the soteriological relationship between divine providence and theodicy.
Three essays may be singled out as exemplary treatments of these issues, respectively. Jenson’s brief contribution creatively takes up the related matters of God’s being, and time/eternity. He suggests that discussion must move beyond treating »eternity« as a special designation for God’s realm over against time (in classical fashion), or understanding it as an infinite extension of time (in, say, Whitehead-ian fashion). Against both, Jenson argues that God should be understood according to the relative »narrative time« of Scripture; i. e., the order of Trinitarian relations, which refuses any before and after. Thinking in these terms allows one to conceive of God’s existence intersecting that of humankind, including the experience of suffering, without subjecting God’s openness to the linearity (i. e., causal consequentiality) of our experience.
Through his interpretation of Karl Barth, McCormack constructively engages Chalcedonian thought. McCormack demonstrates that while there is no room in Barth’s theology for impassibility, this does not entail the loss of immutability, or God’s changelessness. Rather, the humility of the Son is the equally constitutive, eternal counterpart to the Father’s majesty. There are not two acts in eternity – one in which God is triune and the other in which he turns to us – but one. In his election to be with us (in the suffering of the Son), God is triune. Barth grounds the Son’s eternal humility in a creative reformulation of Chalcedon’s single-subject Christology. Rather than understanding the active subject of the hypostatic union as the Logos, Barth exploits the genus tapeinoticum to construe the Logos as eternally receptive of the human agency of Jesus.
Finally, Dulles surveys biblical, philosophical, and theological responses to the problem of human suffering in a world created and governed by a benevolent deity. With characteristic clarity, he distills seven possible responses to this perpetual challenge, ultimately commending »that of the saints, who suffer with joy be-cause affliction brings them into closer union with their crucified Lord« (334).
It is certainly a strength of the book to have so many well-respected names represented. Many of the essays do indeed possess »rare intellectual and spiritual perceptiveness«, as John Webster remarks on the book’s cover.
However, it is an unfortunate limitation of the collection to be so heavily Catholic and especially Thomistic. With Jenson (Lutheran), McCormack (Presbyterian), and Hart (Orthodox), the reader hears a faint echo of ecumenism. But Jenson and McCormack stick out as the only Protestant voices on an issue that has exercised much contemporary Protestant thought, and as the only straightforward advocates of divine passibility (Culpepper advances a somewhat novel thesis that the Trinitarian God is suffering per se [see esp. 88 ff.]). Yet it is not clear whether his »analogy of suffering« introduces an interval between the economic and immanent life of God that would place him at odds with Jenson and McCormack). This is all the more remarkable in that each one’s essay does not stand alone, but is situated as a dialogue (debate?) partner with the one previous. Weinandy criticizes Jenson’s work from the perspective of classical and scholastic thought, calling his understanding of the Creator, »philosophically, utterly naïve and, theologically, wholly inadequate« (104). And Gavrilyuk’s »paradoxical Christology« is a strong statement of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, which forms something of an implicit critique of modern Christology in Barth and McCormack. Moreover, one at least wishes for a contribution from Jürgen Moltmann, given his substantial influence on the subject, and insofar as he is a clear adversary in a few chapters (similarly, some will be disappointed by the lack of representation by radical advocates of passibility in political theology, particularly feminist and liberationist theologians). Several essays, along these lines, look to Thomas Aquinas as a sort of final arbiter (see Emery, Weinandy, Gondreau, and Marshall, and to some extent Culpepper). That much of the book should have such an orientation is to be expected in view, again, of its origin: Providence is a Dominican institution. Nevertheless, mining Thomas in answer to modern revisions of impassibility creates the feeling of being at cross-purposes. Critics of impassibility are leery of fixing doctrinal reflection at any one point in the tradition. They typically invoke ontological constructs beyond and at variance with any kind of metaphysics, Classical, Patristic, Thomistic, or neo-Scholastic. So readers inclined to the tradition may find in this book a robust defense of impassibility by leading scholars of Aquinas. Others inclined to post-substantialist ontologies may question the final relevance of several pieces. The disagreement is perhaps best expressed by Jenson in response to Weinandy, when he observes that » all contributions ... to this effort must be partial and incomplete, including those of the Fathers or Thomas or whomever; and to suppose that any of them provides a Sabbath rest leads to ideology, not theology« (119).
That the text does introduce the reader to centerpiece debates of contemporary theology concerning ontology, method, and soteriology, is to its considerable credit. It operates both as a fine introduction to important elements of Christian thought concerning God’s relationship to his creation, viewed from the arc of the tra-dition, and as an original, differentiated account in its own right. The authors and editors are to be commended for accomplishing the rare feat of contributing to scholarly discussion on the one side, while not alienating the uninitiated on the other.
The book includes a handy index of names and a brief but economically arranged subject index. One of its most laudable features is a targeted bibliography. Pages 336–349 guide the reader to a selection of sources informing the longstanding and ongoing conversation concerning divine impassibility.