Divine Impassibility and the Absoluteness of God: A Brief Reflection on Christianity and Islam

 

(The following is a brief reflection I wrote in seminary.)

1.  Sociohistorical Context

Kam Weng Ng’s essay in Diverse and Creative Voices deals with the respective views of God and humanity in Islam and Christianity.  He presents the Islamic understanding of the absoluteness of God, treating such issues as shirk, Islamic predestination, the (un)knowability of God, Muhammad’s conception of the Trinity, and the Incarnation.  There is a certain commonality between Islam and Christianity, according to Ng, but these commonalities obtain only on a surface level.  Fundamentally, Islam and Christianity have “theological differences on the idea of God.”[1]  Islam and Christianity, then, despite all their similarities, actually depart from each other at the most important level.

2.  Question

Is the God of Christianity passible?  (i.e., can God suffer or undergo changes to His perfections which are forced upon Him from outside of Him?)

3.  Response by Author

After beginning his presentation by examining Allah’s absolute transcendence and “unconditioned power,”[2] Kam Weng Ng turns to the Christian conception of God.  Of God, he says, “the biblical God condescends to the level of making himself vulnerable to rejection by man.”[3]  Kam Weng Ng wants to juxtapose the Islamic and Christian conceptions of God in order to demonstrate that the God of Christianity, in contrast to the God of Islam, is “deeply involved with his people.”[4]  Ng employs Albert Heschel to support his view, quoting, “the predicament of man is a predicament of God who has a stake in the human situation.  Sin, guilt, suffering, cannot be separated from the divine situation.  The life of sin is more than a failure of man; it is a frustration of God.”[5]  Finally, Heschel declares, “this principle leads to the basic affirmation of God’s participation in human history, to the certainty that the events in the world concern Him and arouse His reaction.  It finds its deepest expression in the fact that God can actually suffer.”[6]

4.  Assessment

Kam Weng Ng’s positive use of Albert Heschel clearly demonstrates that Ng believe the Christian God to be passible.  In an effort to preserve the relationality of the  Christian God over against the aloofness of the Islamic God, Ng has rejected the classical Christian articulation of God’s impassibility, which argues that God cannot suffer or undergo changes to His perfections or virtues in any sense.  While Ng is right to consider how both Christianity and Islam conceive of the immanence of God in order to demonstrate their fundamental differences, he is wrong to depart from classical Christian orthodoxy and its expression of God’s impassibility.  That God does not submit to or undergo change in His perfections or virtues in any way whatsoever is central not only to the biblical witness but also to the historic church’s confession of the being of God.  As Paul declares in Acts 17:28 “in Him we live and move and have our being” and in Romans 11:36 “for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.”  These texts strongly imply that God cannot be the reactionary being that Ng and Heschel conceive Him to be.  On the contrary, if God gives to all “men life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25), how can it be rightly said of Him that He reacts to anything?  It seems more feasible to me that, in light of the biblical confession, Christians should confess the impassibility of God rather than rejecting it for perceived apologetic value.

5.  Impassibility and the Absoluteness of God

Impassibility does not make God aloof or distant from His creatures; rather, the doctrine of impassibility ensures that God is conceived of as metaphysically absolute.  This, however, need not detract from the Christian’s conception of the love, mercy, grace, and character of God since God is ontologically different than creatures.  To say that God must be vulnerable or relational in the same way that creatures are vulnerable or relational (that is, to speak univocally) is to blur the line between the Creator and the creature.  We can say that God loves, blesses, and sustains all of creation, but we may not say that God experiences creation in the same way that creatures experience it.  In fact, we may not say, if we have any desire to be found within the boundaries of classical Christian orthodoxy, that God experiences creation at all, if by “experiences” we mean submits to or undergoes change in His perfections or virtues.  While this is certainly difficult to comprehend, we should not jettison difficult doctrines in order to present God as being more palatable or conceivable to modern audiences, whether Christian or Islamic.


Endnotes

[1] Dieumeme Noelliste and Sung Wook Chung, eds. Diverse and Creative Voices (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2015), 26.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Ibid., in Albert Heschel, The Prophets, 6.

[6] Heschel, The Prophets, 39.


Thanks for reading.  Have additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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