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.