Having just come off a week of treading the immeasurably deep waters concerning the impassibility of God, we’ve traded in questions about the nature of our God for questions about the relationship within our God. The water has not gotten any more shallow, and as I read the material this week, I found myself encountering the same sort of human struggle to understand what is simply not human. We are yet again resigned to speak about God in analogy, as we always will be until Christ’s return.

The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was a crucial development for the Christianity we know today. It’s possible to surmise that, had the victors of the Arian Controversy been reversed, the path we have taken to arrive at the doctrine as we know it would have been far longer. Though the doctrinal victory came through political means, I do not think that any theology wherein Christ Jesus is less than God or the Holy Spirit suffers the same fate could withstand true biblical scrutiny.

That all being said, I do think that we can empathize with Arian’s position, because we are just as human as he was. A God who begets another would seem to naturally have dominion over it, or be of a higher substance, to use the terminology of antiquity. After all, our experience in this world tells us that our creations do not rise to be equal to us. The humanity and suffering of Christ were (and obviously still is) a problem, as the sovereignty of God is assailed by a simplistic interpretation of Christ on the cross. Lastly, we can imagine Arian’s fear that Christianity will fall into polytheism by declaring Christ as of the same substance of God as the rumblings of Trinitarian doctrine begin to circulate.

The Arian point of view, in my estimation, ultimately suffered from a need to define God by human terms. Primarily Arian seems to have thrust upon God humanity’s constraints of time and creation. Arian suggests that there existed a time before Christ existed, but this cannot be merely assumed without thrusting the constraints of time upon God. We struggle to conceive of God’s unbegotten nature, being left to merely repeat the fact as God has revealed it to us. We also cannot assume that God’s action of creation functions within the constraints of human creation, including the language of the “begotten Son.”

We are constrained by analogy at every turn with God because we simply cannot describe what we can’t understand. God is also self-constrained to analogy if He chooses for our nature to remain unchanged. This is the failings of human language, which we saw in much the same way last week with the subject of impassibility. God’s chosen means of revelation gives us what we need to have faith, which requires Him (again, if we are to remain constrained by these human bonds of reason) to leave some things visible through the mirror, dimly. (1 Cor 13:12)

The damage to Christianity caused by a Christ who is not God would be irreparable. Christ’s being God fully completes His work on the cross, as there can be no greater sacrifice given in our place. How can Christ the man be of high enough value that He can rectify the chasm between God and humanity created by our sin? There is only one who is righteous enough to bear that burden, and it Christ fully God.

As man pursues the ordering of the world and his very nature, there is a natural limit to what he can discover about his origins. Beyond him is his creator supreme, who has supplied to him vitality, intellect and ability, and the world in which he exists. But man is not capable of discovering or understanding the creator’s great mysteries alone, and so the Creator God saw it that it was good to reveal to man some of God’s nature through His inspired Word. We, therefore, undertake the task of discovering the divine nature by studying the Word that was revealed to us, and by the faculty of our reason and intellect, so that we may draw closer to Him.

In Jeremiah 32:17, the writer states that God has “made the heavens and the earth by[His] great power and by[His] outstretched arm!” The breadth and depth of the power of God are so far beyond our comprehension that the mere thought of His nature and being overwhelms our intellect. When we speak of God, then, we must speak about His nature and attributes using analogies, which are the same way in which he reveals Himself to us. He is called our “shield” (Ps 28:7) and our “rock” (Deut 32:4). Of course, he is not literally these things, but they are meant to evoke a sense of who He is. Similarly, we often speak about God with the language that we would describe humans. He is not human though, and so to speak of Him this way is to communicate about aspects of his nature or his attributes in such a way that we can gain some sense of his “person”, a term derived from the Latin persona, which has the sense of a “mask”1.

The Creator God identifies Himself in Scripture to Abram as “God Almighty.” (Gen 17:1) This declaration of omnipotence is essential to understanding and establishing His ability to complete the scope of work we attribute to God, but it must further be defined to escape the contradictions and errors man has tried to ascribe to it. Often these errors take the form of a logical contradiction, such as “Can God make a rock that he cannot pick up?” Thus, the concept of divine omnipotence requires further clarification to be useful. To this end, William Ockham describes the omnipotence of God using the framework of His two powers; The ordained power of God and the absolute power of God. God possesses an absolute power which gives Him the ability to do all things, yet as He makes choices, He becomes self-limited by them. Having made the heavens and the earth, He cannot then choose not to make them. Thus, God operates by His ordained power, which prevents Him from some things while His absolute power remains established.

If God is almighty and the sole author of all of creation, how can we explain the presence of sin in the world? If God created all things, do we count among his creations the very nature of evil? By bestowing free will upon man, God left to man the ability to decide his own path. While man might have a multitude of options at every turn in his life, the decision is ultimately between the choice of God or self. Sin is the result of man’s choice to turn away from God. So then if choosing sin is the opposite of choosing God, sin and the evil that it brings into the world are not of God, but of man’s choice. Augustine of Hippo characterizes sin as a defective choice or action, which comes from nothing, and so is certainly not a product of God2.

If we can ascribe omnipotence and goodness to God as evidenced in His Word, and further order them via the reason of man, how can we know that these attributes have not changed, nor change in the future? How do we know of God’s steadfastness? The inspired words written by the prophet Malachi, found in Malachi 3:6 state “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” By His own word, God proclaims Himself to be unchanging. Moreover, He declares his name to Moses as “I AM,” not as a riddle, but as a declaration of his steadfast and unchanging nature. Thus, God himself, through His Word, assures us of His immutable and impassible nature.

The implications of this attribute for humanity, especially in the contemporary context of a century of world wars and prolific human suffering, are incredibly relevant. If God is incapable of change, what does that imply about His ability to suffer along with or because of man? It holds to reason that a God who is almighty and steadfast cannot be susceptible to pain or suffering as we understand it. If God were vulnerable to the concept of suffering, then God could not be considered as immutable, as this vulnerability would suggest that he could become more perfect or less perfect3.

Theologians have wrestled with understanding how God can be love and yet not partake in the suffering of those he loves. It is a core misunderstanding of God’s love that is the culprit, which is born of a human sense of love being projected onto wholly-other God. God’s love instead manifests itself not as an emotion, but as life, being, and truth4 and is the force which “fill[s] all creatures, according to their capacities, with his bountiful superabundance and excessiveness” 5. Our imperfection denies us the complete understanding of God’s love and its intersection with his unmoving nature, yet He has seen to reveal to us in Scripture that these seemingly contradicting attributes are both parts of his nature.

It is not too much to say that the beliefs of Christianity rest on the truth of these attributes. If God is not all powerful, then we must question His ability to enact His promises to man. If God is not all good, then we must question His self-representation as such in and thus the validity of Scripture. If God is not steadfast and unchanging, and furthermore affected by suffering because or with us, we must question His motives for creation and redemption. Ultimately these attributes of God define the basis of Christian understanding, and while many have challenged, and continue to challenge, the exactitude of these attributes, they have ultimately stood the tests of time and rationality.

  1. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 178.
  2. Augustine of Hippo, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Augustine of Hippo on the Relationship Between God and Evil,” in The Christian Theology Reader, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 172.
  3. Spinoza, Benedict, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Benedict Spinoza on the Impassibility of God,” in The Christian Theology Reader, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 160.
  4. Hart, David Bentley. “NO SHADOW OF TURNING: On Divine Impassibility.” PRO ECCLESIA, n.d.: 195.
  5. Augustine, De Trinitate VI.x 11, CCL 50: 241-42.

We might say in layman’s terms that the aim and struggle of theology are to best order and understand God and His nature, attributes, and actions. If that simple definition is adequate in any sense, the question of impassibility can be said to in some way affect the entire scope of the field. Hart and Schaab’s dense essays make no easy work of the topic from either end, which speaks to how difficult, and failing we are at understanding a question so far beyond ourselves.

Hart defends the long-held orthodox position of impassibility, or apatheia as he prefers, by seeking to clarify the meaning and manifestation of God’s love for man. Hart believes that the stumbling block in contemporary times is the common definition of love as an emotion, and thus trying to interpret God’s love, capability of suffering, and reaction to suffering in a framework of emotive interaction with man. Instead, he suggests that God’s love manifests itself in life and being, of which creation and redemption both are part. Thus, God’s love cannot be described in the human emotive sense, and the quality and quantity of it are not influenced by his creation. With or without creation, God would be fully God as he eternally is (Hart, 199).

Of course, the problem with this perspective becomes understanding and ordering the incarnation of Christ and his death on the cross. Rectifying the suffering of Christ at Calvary with a God that does not suffer would seem to take some mental flexibility. Hart suggests that the incarnation of Christ was not a change in His nature, which would allow for the suffering of God, but instead that he “freely appropriated the weakness and poverty of our nature for the work of redemption” (Hart, 201). He otherwise describes the incarnation as a “gracious condescension” where Christ “disclos[ed] and express[ed] [himself] in one instance of the infinite” (Hart 202).

Unconvinced that the doctrine of impassibility has a place in a world full of suffering, Schaab builds a menagerie of alternative theories from various new schools of theology. These divergent and diverse theories about God’s propensity to suffer reflect the global need to speak to God’s relationship to modern suffering. Each of these diverse perspectives assails the concept of a passive God from their different angles, and Schaab points out their strengths and weaknesses. Schaab finds them all valuable for consideration, but ultimately inadequate. She instead advocates for an evolutionary approach which purports to support a suffering God while still being theologically viable.

The repeated problem of the “suffering God” approaches becomes balancing God’s omnipotence and vulnerability. To various degrees, these approaches ultimately erode “I AM’s” transcendence, power, and glory and reduce God to a more palatable human creation. This is not to say that these question about how God views our suffering and the effects upon Him are not valid, but I find the result is an amalgamation of weak human emotions and thoughts and a God so entirely other that they cannot occupy the same space.

Human suffering has always been and will always be a problem, and Christians have a responsibility and time-honor tradition of embracing its solutions. However, there is an immense amount of danger in redefining the nature of God as he saw to reveal it to address the problems of the world.

The answer for me is to understand that God can be both incapable of suffering and the complete manifestation of love. That God reveals His name to Moses as “I AM” is not a riddle, but is the manifestation of how impossible it is to comprehend God. Hart says

God has always gone infinitely farther in his own being as the God of self-outpouring charity than we can venture in our attempts to escape him, and our most abysmal sin is as nothing to the abyss of divine love.

God’s interaction with human suffering is to hate it, but accept it, first as part of the human condition that reveals to us our need of Him, and second as the method by which Christ would ultimately redeem the world for the new creation.

For centuries those who are critical of the existence of God has heralded that science can stand on its own to describe and order the natural world that we live in. Theology, in contrast, must rely on the mystery of God to explain the processes of the world, which is seen by unbelievers as an abandonment of reason. In two very different ways, Thomas Aquinas and Pascal refute the skeptic’s stance but in a sort of harmony of head and heart.

Aquinas, in his Five Proofs, provides five “demonstrations” based on the nature of the known world that argues for the consistent proof of God’s existence. Aquinas seeks to use the rational methods and means science against those who cannot find proof for or commit to the idea of, the existence of God. The five ways are simple and easily digestible and provide a base layer that makes it possible to erect a structure of belief from them. The points, however, do not go so far as to prove the existence of the Christian God or even a monotheist perspective. This mostly does not seem to be the aim, other than ending each of the points with a final “This we call God.” Aquinas then is appealing to those who wield reason and rationality as weapons against the existence of God, by putting on display the right use of rational inquiry to prove God.

Pascal on his face could be seen as attacking a rational approach, but I see it as the cooperative argument to Aquinas. Aquinas succeeds in showing the ways reason supports God. Pascal picks up by stating that reason’s deficiency in constructing an entire worldview for or against the existence of God should humble it. He continues his perspective by stating that reason, which by he means intellectually honest reason, takes its last step when it concedes that there are “an infinite number of things which are beyond it” (Reader, 30). And, as Pascal finishes the thought, he pointedly asserts that if reason can’t get to the end of natural things, then how much less does it know about supernatural ones?

I resonated highly with the second Pascal excerpt on the hiddenness of God. This stance that God chose to be hidden influences my understanding of how God has acted and continues to operate. Pascal surmises that it not only right that God be partly concealed and partly revealed; it is also useful…” (Reader, 31). Our God, mysterious His ways, put the Law of Moses into effect so that by it men might know their sin. (Rom 6:7). The sacrificial blood of the covenant, to Israel, “righted” their relationship to Him. God, though, had hidden to them the typology they were taking part in, such that He knew He would save the world through a sacrifice of blood once and for all. This perspective should give us a lens to look through at the mysteries of the revelation, and consider that the mystery is purposeful, and for our benefit. God’s chosen revelation is equally as useful, not just in the primary sense of useful, but valuable in its form: It is everything we need to believe that He exists.

As we stand with our feet planted in the soil of this earth, we can look around and know that we are not our own creator, and sense within ourselves a certain divinity. The evidence of such possession is intangible, yet largely beyond controversy. 1 As we undertake this contemplation of our nature, and the necessary existence of a creator God who has made us and all of the reality that we inhabit, we must seek to order this knowledge of the grand mystery of existence. To do so, unlike so many other pursuits of knowledge however, we must recruit our heart into the equation. This is theology, the contemplation of God, coupled with a right state of the heart. 2

As we undertake the task of theology, we must first identify the truth we seek to understand. In that regard, the most realistic aspiration of our process is to attain the best explanation of the complex world we live in. If empirical proof of a creator God is beyond our grasp, then we must search for an understanding sufficiently comprehensive to afford the basis for ration commitment and ultimately, belief. 3 For theologians, then, we are seeking to collect and organize all of the information that we can attain in order to form a reasonable view of the relationship between ourselves and our creator. We must also recognize and establish that our goal is to arrive at a belief in what the creator God has done, and understanding the methods and means of how God accomplished His many great works is not a critical conclusion we seek.

What data, then, is available to theologians to contribute to our pursuit of reasonable belief? Our primary and most important source of knowledge about God comes from the transmission of His revelation through inspired Scripture. These collected writings self-proclaim God himself to be the author of them. (1 Tim 3:16-17) In order to be both “God-breathed” and the literal product of man, we must first understand the nature of revelation and inspiration. The object of God’s revelation to man is the communication of knowledge, both in the form of truth and understanding. In order to guard the transmission of revelation through the vehicle of man, inspiration from God, through His Spirit, serves to secure infallibility in teaching. 4 God thereby and in tandem with human writers has given theology its starting place, an authoritative text that governs and guides our pursuit of knowledge about and concerning to God.

The Word of God itself, revelation its substance and inspiration its guide, must be then interpreted by man, who is undoubtedly fallible. For this purpose, God instituted the church so that man’s corrupting influence might be mitigated through the establishment of tradition. As we seek to correctly interpret, this tradition acts to keep our interpretation closely tethered to beliefs held universally, in antiquity, and by consensus. 5 It is a certainty that men fail to agree upon these tenets. Nevertheless, theology accepts this fact and does not count it against God, but against man, and furthermore as a motivation to continue to pursue Him.

We must further recognize that Scripture was handed to man in order that we may know him, but not as a list of empirical facts or as an account of all truths. Instead, God provided us with a body of Scripture that bestows on us knowledge through narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, collections of letters, and apocalyptic revelation. Theology, then, must operate within this context, and proceed by finding truth in the forms in which we have received God’s Word. We discover God’s nature and character through narrative stories of His historical dealings with man, and yet still we find deeper understanding through the inclusion of poetry and wisdom literature which illuminates and enriches the narrative. We learn of His plan for humanity, its existence since the beginnings of time, and fulfillment in the life of Jesus, the Son. We recognize that our contemplation of God causes self-contemplation, and thus that theology can only truly be defined between what God is and what we are not.

  1. Calvin, John, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “John Calvin on the Natural Knowledge of God” in The Christian Theology Reader, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 91.
  2. Aquino, Fred, ed. Abraham, William J., Jason E. Vickers, and Natalie B. Van Kirk. Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2008, 178.
  3. Polkinghorne, John, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “John Polkinghorne on Motivated Belief in Theology” in The Christian Theology Reader, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 63.
  4. Charles Hodge, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Charles Hodge on the Inspiration of Scripture” in The Christian Theology Reader, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 113.
  5. Vincent of Lerins, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Vincent of Lerins on the Role of Tradition” in The Christian Theology Reader, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 82.

For the Christian faith, the Authority of Scripture is a question which stands at the foundation for all knowledge and beliefs that are derived from it, hence its importance. One of the ideas most crucial to the faith, and self-proclaimed by the biblical text itself (1 Tim 3:16-17) is that Scripture claims to be authored by God himself. How does the faith rectify this idea of Scripture “breathed out” by God, yet authored in the literal sense by man?

If God can be said to be the author of the Scriptures, did God recruit the writers of the New Testament to be his secretaries, to inscribe into the world of man the things God himself spoke directly? I believe that this understanding of inspiration results in a far too narrow definition of the inerrancy of Scripture, as Rahner does.

By perceiving the Word of God as literally spoken, the diversity found in extant manuscripts from the end of the Apostolic Age until the 4th century when canon started to take shape creates a crisis. Any of the deviations we have found in these manuscripts, regardless of arguments about their intentionality, would represent changes to the “God-breathed” originals.

It also stands to reason that if God intended His literal words, directly relayed by the Holy Spirit, to be the standard for authority, He is certainly capable of communicating them in a way in which they would be immune to the infallibility of man and rightly convey such an unquestionable status.

I believe Hodge makes the strongest case for understanding the role and of both God and man and how they relate to authority found in the NT writings. By considering the influence of God on the formation of the Scriptures as the tandem effect of revelation, that is the communication of knowledge to man, and inspiration, which secures the infallibility of teaching set out by man, Hodge has given enough breathing room for man to play his part while still crediting God with His great work.

Man first needs God to reveal to him the things that are entirely beyond his rational understanding, such as the divine nature of Christ and the reason and the result of His sacrifice. Christ revealed many of these things to us himself, and they continued to be clarified and intertextually explained through other writers and inspired authors. Another consideration is that the explanation that we have of such complex and important issues as these is by measure merely adequate to relay these ideas to us in terms that we can comprehend. The ultimate effect of God’s revelation to man is that we are made to understand the things of God while still being so incapable of grasping them.

Secondly, as a whole the NT writers must be able to intertextually explain the ideas of God without confusing, obscuring, or contradicting other writings and writers. In tandem with revelation, God, through the agent of the Holy Spirit, inspired the NT writers such that their words are sufficient enough to explain their immediate purpose, be useful for posterity for the same purposes, and weave into and thereby complete the story of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.

If Hodge rightly sets out the role and necessity of revelation and inspiration for the NT writers, what is left is the role of the human writers themselves. We have ample example of God’s use of man as an agency to bring about His will, both as leaders of His people, communicators for His people, and as oppressors of them. In the case of the NT writers, the human role was to take the revelation of God and, through the lens of inspiration, relay it in a way humanity would be able to live by it. I believe this moves beyond a mere technical aspect and towards responsibility as co-heirs to relay the great goodness, grace, and mercy of God. It was their great responsibility to give human words to the knowledge of God. This doesn’t make the Bible fallible; It makes the Bible beautiful.

To me, the most persuasive approach in regards to faith and reason begins with the fact that ancient humanity could perceive God through the created order (Rom 1:20). There is a natural reason, which Vatican 1 refers to, which comes to man through the ordinary aspects of life. This natural reason manifests itself as a cumulative collection of experiences and observations, as Newman observes. Without direct communication from God that his covenant people benefited from, God was perceived to these ancient peoples by his eternal power and divine nature in the creation around them. This method of discovery still exists today and is the most basic, foundational way in which we can begin to reason about God: the creation that surrounds us is evidence of his existence.

It’s no surprise to me that in all of our pursuit of the rational ordering of the world and the entire creation, and with our ever-increasing understanding of it, humans still cannot reasonably comprehend, explain, or order how the world came into being, much less even that it did so without a creator. If the pursuit of truth, as Polkinghorne says, seeks to attain the best explanation of complex phenomena to afford the basis for a rational commitment, there seems to be an undeserved amount of animus for the Christian explanation of the world.

Polkinghorne notes the apparent lack of consideration in the world that has been given to Christian belief as potentially reasonable, which he says is derived from the simple “knowing” that there can be no truth in faith since it defies everyday secular expectation. Pope Francis also references a more contemporary example of a similar observation in the modern obsession with technological truth. One of the costs of our tremendous progress in science and technology is the expectation that truth takes the form of knowable certainty, and is evidenced by the collective agreement on said truth. This ultimately puts theology at odds with culture, since theology studies and seeks a universal truth that comes from beyond man.

However, if we can naturally recognize our world as the work of a creator God from the natural evidence around us and lack of more reasonable explanation, we can reasonably know that He is more powerful than his creation and is the author of all things. Having created all things including humanity and its faculties, including reason and logic, it follows that faith cannot be in opposition to reason as both are from God.

In the course of rectifying this natural reason with the rational evidence we can find in the world around us, we do encounter tension where these two forces seem to be opposed. Humanity has proven itself quite susceptible to misunderstandings, both in issues of faith and reason. Vatican 1’s opinion is that perceived tensions between faith and reason are the result of these misunderstandings of human nature, whether the error is in the interpretation of the church’s dogma or man’s discovered truths.

By structuring the interaction when faith and reason find tension as a place where both can be examined, we give theologians proper latitude in navigating the mysteries we seek to understand but cannot prove, and can ultimately help to clarify church teaching or correct bad rationality. To that end, we should welcome reasonable inquiry and exploration of faith while still recognizing the limits that prevent faith from being probed and tested in the same ways as empirically driven subjects.

If theologians are to treat biblical text as faithful, we work from the knowledge that man was intentionally made, considered to be very good, and so we can deduce that his ability to reason is from God. The natural order of creation is our first and most primitive evidence of the reasonableness of faith. Pursuing faith through rational inquiry stands to benefit the faithful and also those who are seeking a deeper understanding worth a rational commitment.