Monday, May 14, 2012

Pacific Northwest AAR Abstract

This is the abstract from a paper that I presented this last week at the Pacific Northwest Regional meeting of AAR. It was a good time. Met some good people and heard some excellent papers.

Metaphysics, Mutuality, and the Suffering of God: An Investigation into the Doctrine of Impassibility and its Implications for the Doctrine of God
            The impetus for writing this paper is rooted in and ongoing interest in the historical development of the doctrine of God. More specifically, my interest is in the problem of metaphysics and its place within a proper construction of this doctrine. With this concern in mind, a specific problem, which arises from the presence of metaphysics within the Christian doctrine of God, is a commitment to divine impassibility. Thus, the purpose of this essay is to address problems surrounding the doctrine of divine impassibility in relation to the doctrine of God. Drawing from the theologies of Karl Barth, Eberhard Jüngel, and Robert Jenson I will suggest that the problem at hand is in direct relation to an improper metaphysical understanding of the Triune God. What I mean by this is that the Church’s adherence to a doctrine of divine impassibility is rooted in a prior—and historically ever present—commitment to Greek metaphysics over against the witness of the life of Jesus Christ. The first section of this essay will argue that the consequences of such a commitment are the development of a doctrine of God conceived in abstracto, the danger of arriving at a semi-Nestorian division within the person of Christ, and, as a result, the necessary commitment to a disjunction between the immanent and economic Trinity. The second section will argue that in order to formulate a proper doctrine of God one must develop a theological ontology, which incorporates the history of Christ into the very essence of God thereby establishing the suffering of Christ as fundamentally proper to the Triune life. Moreover, I will show that proclaiming Christ as the “Crucified God” is not incompatible with a conception of immutability provided that Christ’s suffering be understood as eternally incorporated into the Godhead. And in the final section I will address a recent article by David Bentley Hart on divine suffering. 


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun, Andrew! Glad to hear that the regional meeting was a good time -- I'm getting ready to move home to the PNW after doing doctoral studies abroad, and may turn up at next year's meeting.

    On the topic of your paper, I'm curious what you make of Paul Gavrilyuk's thesis that the claims of a "fall into Greek philosophy" popularized by von Harnack is one of the greatest travesties perpetrated in modern theology. I just happen to be reading his book this week and thinking about the issue, as my own sympathies lie with you and ol' Karl.

  2. Hey Darren! Where about's are you going to be moving to in the PNW? I have heard of Gavrilyuk's work, but have not read it myself. However, I think Harnack's thesis is quite irrefutable. Even if there are flaws in Harnack's thesis, I don't know how anyone can read theology espoused even before Augustine and not see the influence of the Greek's. It is inherent in the writings of the Church fathers, through the Reformation, and all the way up into the Enlightenment. I also don't think of Harnack's thesis as a travesty, but rather as a new discovery for the church and theology.

    What is your take on Gavrilyuk's work as a whole? Thanks for stopping by, Darren!

  3. Just finished Gavrilyuk's book, and while he offers some interesting historical analysis on the development of impassibility I don't take the thesis against the 'theory of theology's fall into Greek philosophy' to be all that well sustained. Now, of course, when we are looking at broad movements it can be incredibly difficult to demonstrate influence (or lack thereof). Better, I think, to keep the claims small. Clearly the terminology and thought forms of Greek philosophy were there, in the early church, quite early on (Justin Martyr is often cited as one of the first to deliberately attempt a theological program of accommodation). But did the Greek ideas unduly influence the development of Christian doctrine? Or did theologians have other (biblical, Semitic) reasons for making the moves that they did (for example, with respect to impassibility)? Perhaps we should hesitate before making too grandiose a claim one way or the other.

    The issue is analogous to the Christians' adoption of dates and practices from pagan holidays. On the one hand, the intent was to baptize pagan practices and make them Christian; on the other, it was inevitable (especially after a couple of millennia) that the pagan practices would influence Christian understanding and practice. The 'influence' goes both ways, and it's a tall order to claim which side wins the balance.

    I'll be in the Olympia area, probably as of September.