The Apathetic God

I have just started reading a new book (soon to be published). It is called The Apathetic God: Exploring the Contemporary Relevance of Divine Impassibility (Paternoster, 2009) by Daniel Castelo.

In a nutshell, the fashion on theology is to say, "Alas! Alas! How the early church sold the riches of dynamic, Hebrew-style, biblical theology for the rags of pagan, static, Greek philosophical theology!"

The bogey man is what is known as 'classical theism' (the view in which God is timeless, spaceless, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc, etc) and the example par excellence of how far theology fell from its biblical roots is the doctrine of divine impassibility. If I had £1 for every time I have heard someone slagging off the doctrine of impassibility I'd be a wealthy man.

Now it is confession time.

1. I have always had a soft spot for classical theism.
2. I find the idea of God as timeless, etc as rather appealing (though I am not persuaded that it is right).
3. And re: impassibility I certainly think that it is very arrogant of us to dismiss out of hand a doctrine that has been important in Christian theology since the early church. Were all these devout and intelligent believers utterly oblivious to the so-called pagan implications of their beliefs? At very least we should be highly suspicious of the claim that they were.

Impassibility is often understood as the claim that God is not affected by the world - that he is not moved by it. That he is cold and indifferent. It is said to be the exact opposite of biblical teaching. But perhaps we have misunderstood early Christian teaching.

I was first wised up to this when reading Paul Gavrilyuk's excellent book The Suffering of the Impassible God in which he shows that the early church did not simply download pagan notions into Christian theology. Of course, they drew on philosophical categories current in their culture in order to clarify and protect some biblical concepts but they did not allow those pre-formed concepts to lock the Bible up. Rather they allowed the Bible to modify the way in which those categories were understood. The doctrine of impassibility was used to defend divine transcendence and I for one think that the mysterious transcendence of God is still in need of defending.

This is where Castello comes in. His aim is to show that Christian theology must embrace the insights of both the passibilist and the impassibilist traditions. His focus is on defending the importance of impassibilism because that is the concept that is so untrendy.

For Castello much of the problem is rooted in numerous definitions of impassibility at play such that debates often end up with people talking past each other. He works with the understanding that God is impassibile in the sense that "God cannot be affected against his will by another force" (p. 16).

I have been looking forward to this for a long time and it looks to be excellent so far. I think that Castello has something important to say to contemporary theology - that we reject the classical tradition to our own loss.


JP said…
Have you read Frances Young, Face to face: a narrative essay in the theology of suffering? She writes very movingly about the experience of caring for her disabled son Arthur, and still manages to find solace in the notion of divine impassibility. Very good book indeed - entirely convinced me that the Fathers were right!
Robin Parry said…
I love Frances Young! A few years back I travalled to Rome (and back) with her and we chatted about her son and her work with Jean Vanier. She is a wonderful woman. I did not realise that she had written that book. Thanks for the heads up.
David Reimer said…
Is there much interaction with Paul Fiddes's Creative Suffering of God (OUP, 1988)? I think Fiddes and Tom Weinandy used to be sparring partners on this one. Perhaps they still are. :)
Robin Parry said…

Not sure. There's an extended critique of Moltmann and I'm sure Fiddes will get a mention. Weinandy wrote the foreword.

It's actually interesting so far re: the biblical stuff. He's pretty critical about how the classical Christian tradition has handled the strong passibilist stream in the biblical material. He's also critical about how some passibilists have handled it. He argues that the tension between the passibilist and impassibilist streams is one rooted in the Bible itself and the tension needs to be preserved in contemporary theology. The question is how that is done.

I have yet to see how he'll try to handle it. But I am broadly sympathetic to his goal - seeking a via media between the classical tradition and the more recent passibilist trend.

I imagine that thou art more of a passibilist. Right?
Yes, I like classic theism too.

But I tend to always go for the least fashionable view.

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