Does God Suffer?

Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Suffer. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000. 310pgs

This isn't the first time I have mentioned this book, but I just finished it today. As I have mentioned before, it is a topic of some interest to me. Depending on your particular bent or training, the question may seem easy to answer in the positive or negative. From a philosophical point of view, God is impassible, and so of course he doesn't suffer. From a gospel story point of view, the natural reply is "What about Jesus, the Son of God, one member of the Holy Trinity, suffering and dying on the cross?"

Indeed, and such is the dilemma. Of course, it is only compounded by our 20th century focus on Empathy (I just recently found out that this word first entered the English language in 1919! Different book though) and our desire to have a God who shares our suffering, with the nearly assumed correlative position that if God does not suffer with us, then he cannot love us.

These are exactly the kinds of questions Weinandy explores in this book. He begins by stating and explaining the position of those who answer "Yes." He then goes on to explain his method, his view of God, patristic theology, and how impassibility is understood in light of creation, love, incarnation, and redemption. Finally, he adds a chapter on how Christ's work changes the nature of our own suffering. The short version of his argument is that God does not suffer, and in not suffering God is more loving, not less. As well, it is only in His impassibility that he redeems or becomes incarnate. The full details of those arguments actually do require an entire book to explain, so I won't try to sum them up any more than that.

I will say, however, that Weinandy is an excellent writer with a very strong argument. He is able to do several things which most authors who touch on this subject have proven unable to accomplish. To begin with, he clearly and fairly explains both sides of the argument. You might not know how rare that is, but trust me. Most authors who argue for God's passibility express, at best, bafflement at how anyone who claims to have a coherent theology can hold that God is both loving and impassible. Meanwhile, those who argue for God's impassibility usually portray the other side as a bunch of heretics who are making God in man's image. Individuals who do represent their opponents well are almost always better scholars and more powerful debaters.

On top of that fact, Weinandy is also able to coherently explain the church father's positions on these issues (including his own critiques and extensions and so on). Again, you may not know how rare this is, but trust me. Reading material on these topics, one quickly begins to feel that the church fathers can be made to dance to whatever tune happens to be playing, or, at very least, made to look like fools for allowing themselves to be infected with Greek philosophy when Christianity is so clearly Jewish... yeah, I won't go into that.

Overall, this book is not an easy read. It is thorough and philosophical and interesting and powerful, but neither easy nor simple. Read it if your interested in the subject; otherwise you will have no motivation at all to wade through 300+ pages of this kind of writing.

As for me, I have changed my position on these issues. I used to accept the position that God does suffer. I have never thought God changes his character, or anything like that, but it seemed plain to me that for God to love he must suffer, if Christ is God he must suffer, and that impassibility was tied to a static definition of perfection which was dry and clearly not presented in scripture. Now I see that for God to love fully, perfectly, for Him to be love, He must not suffer (grieve yes; and the distinction between those two is very interesting in and of itself); if Christ is God then Christ suffered as a man, not as God; and impassibility does not need to be tied to a static definition of perfection, but in fact is more accurately tied to the dynamic picture we find in scripture.


phil said...

wow still trying to wrap my head around that... insightful nonetheless

kering said...

Mmm, that's really interesting. Maybe I'll borrow that book for my summer...

Andrew said...

If your interested, I highly recommend. Unfortunately, I don't own this book; its from the library. So, you will have to see if a library you have access to has it; or else I could sign it out for you then.