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Why the impassible God is good news in a COVID world

Monday 7th September 2020

COVID has unleashed a wave of misery across the world. Those that have not lost loved ones have been swept up in COVID's economic wake, and many are suffering the effects of the social isolation as a result of efforts towards prevention. In such a time we want a God who suffers along with us and is therefore near to us. But for most of Christian history, God has been understood to be unable to suffer with us in an important way: he has been understood as impassible. Why was such a strange doctrine affirmed?

Think about God's nature. Scripture tells us that God is spirit (John 4:24). God in and of himself has no body. Now, think about emotion. Our experience of emotion is profoundly embodied. When we get bad news our hearts race, the bottom drops out of our stomachs, and we begin to sweat. But stripped of its bodily content, this emotion would simply be the thought 'something has gone wrong.' This is not emotion in any straightforward sense. And so, God can't have emotion in any straightforward sense.

Now, think about what God's nature is. The most profound statement in the Scriptures about what God is, next to the revelation of the divine name, is found in 1 Jn 4:8. What God is, we are told, is love (1 Jn 4:8). Love is an action which we often confuse with the state of infatuation.

True love belongs to the spiritual power that is the will, as it consistently decides for the good of the beloved, even in the face of countervailing passions.

In the Johannine context, the specific action that defines this love is the self-giving of the incarnate Son in history.

This love is, then, definitive of God. So, this historical pattern can be read back into God's being. And we arrive at picture of the Father, Son, and Spirit, in a relationship of ongoing self-giving adoration. Moving back in the other direction again, we can say that in creation God chooses to share this reality with something other than himself, and when creation goes wrong he shares his very Son in the incarnation.

This, then, must be the controlling rubric through which we read God's interaction with the world. Everything God does must be a manifestation of his love. Even judgement must be understood as the expression of love that will not allow vandalism of God's good creation to go unpunished: God's love, as P.T. Forsyth reminds us, is holy. The posture from which God addresses the world is unyieldingly, ceaselessly loving.

The first thing that we should take from this is that this means that God does not experience 'emotions' that would conflict with this loving nature. Love is what God is, there is nothing behind it desperately trying to manifest itself. There is only love.

The second thing we should take from this is that it would be bad for us if this reality could be changed in any way. It would be terrible if God could deal with us from a posture which is anything other than loving. God's being does not alter through his contact with creaturely reality. And so, in an important way, God cannot suffer alongside us. For he possesses the delight of inner-trinitarian love as the very foundation of his being. But this inability for God to be affected by our sufferings is good news, because it tells us that God is love.

God is then free to always and everywhere respond to our sufferings in a manner that is absolutely true to who he is: love. This is all some mean by God as impassible: God's experience of emotions are very different to ours, he experiences no emotions pushing him to act out of accord with God's nature, and his nature is completely unaffected by what transpires in the world. Hopefully, you can see why this is good news. Others have taken this further and added that God is not causally affected by the world at all, but rather always acts as cause. But that leads us into deep and difficult waters: if you want to explore them, you can do so in class here at Morling.

Matthew Andrews will be hosting an online forum on Tuesday 10 October about 'Atonement, Violence and Love'. Registration is free and open to the public. If you're interested to join the forum, please register today.

Written by Matt Andrews

Matt Andrew is a lecturer at Morling College, where he teaches in the area of Bible and Theology. He and his family live in Sydney.

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