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.

At some point during the mid-20th century, the Churches of Christ were incredibly busy packing every piece of the doctrine into a package labeled “Things Required for Salvation.” I am unsure about the cultural forces that drove a segment of the Restoration Movement in this direction, but the concept has not aged very well into the 21st century. It has left, in my opinion, the Churches of Christ in a position that is increasingly hard to stomach for the Christians who are now ascending to leadership roles.

Growing up as a Church of Christ kid in the 1990s, I was peppered continuously by the questions from other kids that rooted from these decisions made decades ago. “Do you think that you’re the only ones going to heaven?” was by far the most prevalent, but I still fielded many others on the use of a piano, why we had no fellowship hall or gym, etc.

Some of these positions are sound in theology but get entirely crossways in the messaging we use to defend them. This confusion most often appears when we speak about the theological position from the point of what not to do. Many of these positions are much easier to illustrate when we use language and descriptors for how we arrive at what we can do.

A great example of this would be the common points made about musical instrumentation during church worship. The de facto standard is to fall back to Ephesians 5:19 as evidence of the absence of instruments, and thus continue the train of thought that suggests that we then rightly deduce that they cannot be used.

Whether it is theologically sound or not to use instruments in worship, there is undoubtedly no arguments being made in modern day Christianity that the lack of instruments is displeasing to God. Reframing our objections to a particular principal into affirmative statements as to our own choices keeps us from putting into the salvation box things that ought not to be there.

For this example, we can better communicate our theological position by merely stating that the elders of our autonomous congregation have decided to sing a cappella. There is no ground to stand on to refute this position, and we can start to focus on essentials instead of necessarily defending our view because of our messaging.

Even worse in my eyes are the divisions between our brothers and sisters within the Restoration Movement. The division over supporting para-church organizations like colleges and orphanages could have only come to be by requiring the decisions of every autonomous congregation to be forced in the “Things Required for Salvation” box.

For a movement that began with a call for unity in essentials and liberty elsewhere, it is quite a fall to divide over things we should be embracing freedom concerning. After all, the eldership at every autonomous congregation will have to answer for the decisions that they made for their flock, whether good or bad. If you are not of that flock, or even more specifically of that eldership, you have little to be concerned about for yourself.

Support of para-church organizations is again an example of a problem that is able to be reframed by changing our messaging. We don’t even have to change our principles or convictions on either side of the theological discussion.

By merely stating that the autonomy of congregations allows the freedom to separately choose whether we will support para-church organizations, instead of convicting each other over the legality of such, we can move past yet another instance where liberty should reign and move back to agree on essentials.

The continued need to stand and divide on these less defensible positions leaves our church in a less capable place to fulfill the mission that is given to us by Christ. If we instead want to focus more on work that produces results, we should file these disagreements under the column of liberty in non-essentials and collectively unite to reach out to the many lost souls around us every day.