Article of the Month




Frederick S. Leahy


The notion of a suffering God has come to the fore in recent times largely because of the influence of theologians like Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann. It has been espoused by leading evangelicals like John Stott and D.A. Carson. It is not a new idea. The Church Father Tertullian (c. 160-220) in his tract ‘Against Praxeas’ successfully refuted the Monarchianism which had become so prevalent and which considered the doctrine of the three ‘persons’ in the Godhead to be irreconcilable with the unity of God. The Monarchians confessed the true and proper deity of Christ, but denied his humanity. This view inevitably led to the concept of a suffering God, the ancient heresy that the Father suffered as the Son, i.e., it was the divine essence itself that was said to suffer at Calvary. Subsequently this heresy was known as Patripassianism — the suffering Father.

Tertullian, who has been called the father of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, stated that Praxeas (who had lived some time previously) ‘had expelled prophecy and brought in heresy, and exiled the Paraclete and crucified the Father’. B. B. Warfield tells us that Praxeas ‘submitted to correction and returned to the old faith . . . But it is the curse of noxious growths that they are apt to leave seeds behind them’ (Works, vol. iv, p. 8). Tertullian found this seed springing up on all sides and strained every nerve to correct what he rightly saw as a rampant evil, an evil that was essentially anti-Trinitarian. So the old questions confront us anew. Can God suffer? Did God suffer? Does God suffer?

The Problem to be Considered

There is clearly a sharp conflict between the statements of theologians in this area. Historically the concept of a suffering God has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Protestant theologians. God is described in the Westminster Confession of Faith as ‘a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions . . .’ (II.1). The Scriptures, in condescension to our weakness, speak metaphorically when they do attribute to God bodily organs and human passions — hands, face, eyes, ears, jealousy, repentance, etc. Such anthropomorphisms (attributing human parts or passions to God)  are common in Scripture. They are inevitable in a divine revelation addressed to the mind of finite man. Calvin comments, ‘For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to "lisp" in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness’ (Institutes, 1:13:1). Elsewhere Calvin says, ‘If we heard God speaking to us in His Majesty, it would be useless to us, since we would understand nothing. So, since we are carnal, he must stutter. Otherwise we would not understand him’ (Sermon on John 1:1-5 in a volume entitled The Deity of Christ, p. 18). This principle of accommodation must be recognised in considering God’s revelation of himself to our limited capacity.

However, other voices are raised in contradiction. Dr A.H. Strong writes, ‘The love of God involves the possibility of divine suffering . . . God is passible or capable of suffering’ (Systematic Theology, p. 266). Moltmann declares that the godforsakenness of the world ‘is suffered by God himself on the cross’ (The Crucified God, p. 152). Over and over Moltmann hammers out his theme. ‘Divine suffering is ... no mere opus ad extra; it takes place within the inner trinitarian life of God’ (op. cit. p. 249). To Moltmann, and those who think like him, a God who cannot suffer is completely insensitive, uninvolved. As Moltmann puts it, ‘He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being’ (op. cit. p. 222). In Christ’s dread cry of dereliction on the Cross, Moltmann sees the Fatherlessness of the Son matched by the Sonlessness of the Father. He rejects the label ‘Patripassianism, preferring instead ‘Patricompassionism’ — yet his doctrine is clearly Patripassianism. John Stott quotes Moltmann with approval: ‘Were God incapable of suffering ... then he also would be incapable of love’; and he quotes Bonhoeffer who wrote from prison, ‘Only the suffering God can help’ (The Cross of Christ, p. 332).

A conservative theologian, D.A. Carson, likens the God of the orthodox doctrine of impassibility (non-suffering) to Buddha — albeit agreeing that no such similarity is intended. He accuses the defenders of the orthodox position of hiding behind anthropomorphisms and asks, ‘Does God suffer? And if he does not, why does the Bible spend so much time depicting him as if he does?’ (How Long, O Lord? p. 186). When Carson insists that as figures of speech anthropomorphisms ‘must refer to something he is absolutely right, and theologians and commentators have been at pains to indicate that something.

Let two examples suffice. In Genesis 6:6 we read, ‘And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart’. Here Matthew Henry comments, ‘These are expressions after the manner of men, and must be understood so as not to reflect upon the honour of God’s immutability or felicity. This language does not imply any passion or uneasiness in God (nothing can create disturbance in the Eternal Mind), but expresses his just and holy displeasure against sin and sinners, against sin as odious to his holiness and against sinners as obnoxious to his justice’. Calvin speaks in similar vein: ‘Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains for ever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity’. Then in Isaiah 63:9 we read, ‘In all their affliction he was afflicted . . .’. Again Calvin’s comment elucidates: ‘In order to move us more powerfully and draw us to himself, the Lord accommodates himself to the manner of men, by attributing to himself all the affection, love, and compassion which a father can have’; and Matthew Henry states, ‘He takes what injury is done to them as done to Himself and will reckon for it accordingly’. This is how these and similar passages are to be understood. They do mean something, but they do not mean that we are to envisage a tortured, restless Deity. That we are justified in interpreting such passages as accommodations to our limited capacity is borne out by noting how often God is said to ‘repent’, yet Scripture declares of his own essential being, ‘God is not a man that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent’ (Num. 23:19); compare 1 Samuel 15:29; Ezekiel 24:14; 2 Timothy 2:13.

The Errors to be Identified

Those who insist on maintaining the concept of a suffering God have erred gravely in at least two important areas of Christian doctrine. First, they have unwittingly obscured the purpose of the incarnation. Scripture clearly teaches that the eternal Christ became incarnate in order that he might suffer redemptively. ‘Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil’ (Heb. 2:14). Philip E. Hughes comments, ‘The purpose of the incarnation was specifically that the Messiah might die . . . Only the assumption of human nature could qualify him to fulfil his function of Redeemer, for his human nature fitted him to suffer and die as Man for man . . .’.

Dr William Symington, in his classic work on the Atonement, 1834, says of Christ, ‘The possession of a human nature qualified him for suffering; the divinity of his person gave to his suffering a worth equivalent to its dignity. Although the human nature was alone capable of suffering, it was nevertheless the person to whom the nature belonged who suffered. It may be thought that at this rate, as the person was divine, such an assertion involves the blasphemy that Deity suffered. By no means.’ (The Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ, p. 211). Symington then proceeds to show that when a person suffers it does not follow that he suffers in all that pertains to him; e.g. he may suffer in his property but not in his honour; in his happiness but not in his character, and so on. It is significant that Symington is at pains to reject the notion that the Deity suffered; this he terms ‘blasphemy’. Dr Charles Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, states that the idea that ‘the divine nature suffered’ is ‘repudiated alike by the Latin, Lutheran and Reformed churches’ (Vol. II, 1883 ed., p. 483). George Smeaton states: ‘The Son of God suffered in our humanity, and in that humanity was vilified, despised, and crucified, and bore punishment that must be borne in the room of sinners’ (The Doctrine of the Atonement, p. 29).

In Romans 8:3 it is stated that God in sending ‘his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh’. Here W. G. T. Shedd remarks that ‘in and by his humanity, Christ endured that judicial infliction which God the Father visited upon "his own" Son, for the purpose of expiating human guilt’ (Commentary on Romans, p. 231). As John Murray puts it neatly, ‘The battle was joined and the triumph secured in that same flesh which in us is the seat and agent of sin’ (The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1, p. 282). Such passages clearly teach that Christ became incarnate in order that he might suffer in his human nature for the sins of his people. To widen this view of suffering to include the Father, or the Deity as such, is to lose sight of and ultimately distort an all-important truth. Suffering was intrinsic to Christ’s humiliation; nowhere in Scripture is it even hinted that God in his essential being suffered redemptively or in any other fashion.

It must be remembered that Christ’s incarnation for the purpose of our redemption entailed curse-bearing — the curse of God on our sin. George Smeaton says that ‘his entire life was pervaded by the curse; and he encountered it in every sphere where His people were required to bear it’. Smeaton lays great stress on the fact that Christ was ‘called to lead a curse-bearing life, throughout His whole earthly career’ (op. cit. pp. 91, 104). Christ lived a vicarious, curse-bearing life as our Substitute. Now there is a vital distinction between the Father who inflicted the suffering and the One who suffered and died. In no way can the Deity be said to bear the curse of sin, or to suffer from the consequences of sin, and God cannot die.

D.A. Carson writes, ‘If the sufferings of Jesus Christ are somehow restricted to his human nature, are we not in danger of constructing (dare I say it?) almost a schizophrenic Christ?’ (op. cit. p. 186). What then should we say of the doctrine that ‘the eternal Son of God became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 21)? Does that present a ‘schizophrenic Christ’? Better far to say with B.B. Warfield that in the person of Christ we have ‘an inexhaustible mystery, the mystery surpassing all mysteries, of combined divine love and human devotion’ (Works, vol. iii, p. 306). Scripture makes it abundantly plain that Christ suffered in his human nature — it is not for us to analyse, but to believe. The argument that because of the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son (perichoresis, John 14:10; 17:21) it may be said that God suffered, simply ignores the express biblical teaching that Christ suffered ‘in the flesh’ (1 Pet. 4:1). Besides, it is a leap to absurdity, for as G.C. Berkouwer asks, ‘How can God be forsaken of God?’ (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, p. 305). Certainly the Father and the Son enjoy mutual indwelling (John 10:30), yet they are distinct: there is no loss or confusion of identity.

In the second place, those who advocate the concept of a suffering God unwittingly obscure the doctrine of the Trinity, for this resurgent Patripassianism relates easily, if not naturally, to the modalistic view of the Trinity which sees God revealing himself sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son and sometimes as Spirit. The Anti-Trinitarians with whom Tertullian contended believed that there is only one divine Person: ‘conceived of in his abstract simplicity and eternity’ he was called ‘God the Father; but in the incarnation . . . God the Son’ (See W.G.T. Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine, vol. i, p. 254). The concept of a suffering Father or a suffering Son, in terms of divinity, is really inconsistent with the tri-personality of God and introduces a considerable element of confusion. That modalistic view of God appeals to many because the human mind can grasp it more easily, but the same is true of the unitarian view of Jesus of Nazareth. We accept the truth because it has been revealed to us, not because we fully understand it. It is doubtful if those evangelicals who espouse the doctrine of a suffering God have paused sufficiently to consider its implications.

The Extremes to be Avoided

There is the extreme of regarding God as remote, feelingless and unmoved by what happens to this world. We certainly must not accept a Greek and Aristotelian concept of deity, or a deistic view which portrays God as quite indifferent to the course of events in the universe he created. It is precisely at this point that a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion have arisen. What did the Westminster Divines have in mind when they described God as ‘a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions’? They certainly did not mean that he had no feelings or emotions. The word ‘passion’ is derived from a Latin word, patior, meaning to suffer. In this sense we speak of the passion of Christ. Such suffering was the result of action from without. In this strict sense of the term, God has no passions. He cannot be moved by anything outside himself, unlike all his creatures. He is self-subsistent and independent of his creation. All God’s actions and attitudes are self-determined. His love and his wrath, for example, are very real, but they are self-moved. This vital point has been missed by critics of the wording of our Confession on this subject. It is wrongly assumed that the Confession, at this point, presents an Aristotelian view of God, a mere ‘uncaused cause’, the ‘unmoved mover’. Spinoza presented such a concept of God when he wrote, ‘God is free from all passions . . . He is not affected with joy or sadness; or with love and hatred’. (Quoted by W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 1889 ed. vol. 1, p. 172). But an emotionless God would be mere intelligence, and, to quote Shedd, ‘the lowest form of intelligence’.

The Scriptures repeatedly attribute feeling to God. Some of these ascriptions are to be taken literally, like love and wrath; others metaphorically, like fear (Gen. 3:22, 23), jealousy and repenting. Shedd lays down the criterion of the divine blessedness when it comes to distinguishing between feelings which are to be regarded literally and those which are to be considered metaphorically. ‘God cannot be the subject of any emotion that is intrinsically an unhappy one. If he literally feared his foes, or were literally jealous of a rival, he would so far forth be miserable’ (op. cit. vol. 1, p. 174). What, then, of God’s wrath? It is the reverse side of his love of righteousness. God’s love and wrath are inseparable. It is impossible to love the good without hating the evil. Both emotions are entirely compatible with the divine blessedness. In recognising that God has the feelings of personality as embraced by his love and his wrath, we avoid the concept of a cold, unconcerned deity on the one hand and that of a tortured, suffering deity on the other. Resurgent neo-patripassianism presents us with a God who can suffer, who has suffered and who, in the thinking of many, still suffers.

The Perspectives to be Maintained

These perspectives, as we have seen, relate to the tri-personality of God who is ‘pure spirit’, and to the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity in order to suffer redemptively for his people. It was possible for the eternal Christ to suffer in his human nature because of the hypostatic or personal union of the two natures. Thus what is proper to either nature is attributed to the Person. Some of the acts of Christ were purely divine, such as forgiveness of sins, and some were purely human, such as eating, drinking and sleeping. Yet all were acts of one and the same Person. Therefore Christ died and rose again. Christ suffered. Christ redeemed us. But he suffered in his human nature — can it be stressed too much or too often? So real is the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ that the Bible speaks of ‘the blood of God’ (Acts 20:28), of the One who died on the Cross as ‘the Lord of glory’ (1 Cor. 2:8) and of the One who came down from heaven as ‘the Son of Man’. So the Westminster Confession states, ‘Christ, in the work of mediation, acteth according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself, yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature’ (VIII.7). So Christ could say my flesh’, ‘my blood, and ‘my body’. It is somewhat puzzling, then, when a writer like D.A. Carson comments, ‘I know that one form of conservative theology likes to go through the Gospels and assign this little bit of Jesus’ human nature and that little bit of Jesus’ divine nature, but I am persuaded that a much more profound christological integration is possible’ (op. cit. p. 186). Most Reformed thinkers, however, will find the statement of the Westminster Divines sufficiently profound, and those same Divines emphatically rule out integration.

There is need for caution when we deal with this subject. The One who died on the Cross was cursed: he experienced damnation. Can we speak of ‘the crucified God’ as Moltmann does? Was Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross a dialogue or a monologue? While it is true that the divine nature was incarnate in the Son, it does not follow that the entire Trinity was incarnate. When Christ suffered and died, the Trinity was complete. Admittedly the doctrine of the Trinity and that of the Person of Christ are profound mysteries, yet we confess both in faith because they are revealed to us in Scripture. This whole subject is no fine point of doctrine where Christians may disagree in charity and leave it at that. This is a major issue which involves the doctrine of God at its very core and our whole view of God’s relation to mankind. No doctrine stands in isolation. Just as one false note can ruin harmony, so one false doctrine damages truth as a whole. The logical consequences of belief in a suffering God are pernicious. Liberals are less hesitant to take that belief to where it leads than are evangelicals.

Moltmann, for example, rejects the doctrine of the two distinct natures united in the one Person of Christ, a doctrine finally and firmly established at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. It is not surprising when liberals resurrect an ancient heresy, but when some leading evangelicals do so it is shocking, and there are evangelicals who reject the doctrine of eternal punishment, and some who deny the eternal sonship of Christ — what next? What of the influence of such teaching within Christian circles? The seeds that troubled Tertullian are springing up in the most unexpected places. Heresy is a hardy perennial.

In rejecting the notion of an apathetic or feelingless God, and no such notion is to be found in our Reformed Confession, or in the great Reformed and Lutheran theologians, there is no need to go to the dangerous extreme of positing the idea of a God in pain. The doctrine of the incarnation properly stated saves us from either extreme and points us to a loving and gracious God. Do not the tears of our Saviour tell us much about God? Of course they do. They were redemptive tears, part of Christ’s suffering in our loom and stead (Heb. 5:7). They belonged to the time of his humiliation. That time passed. Christ is an exalted Saviour now. The message of the Cross is clear. God does care and God is not inactive. The root-cause of all suffering and death has been dealt with. The enemy of God and man has been routed. The renewal of the earth is guaranteed. We speak not of a God who suffered in himself and who still suffers, but of a God who was ‘in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19).

The message that this lost world so desperately needs to hear is not of an agonized and agonizing God, but of a sovereign God who by the Cross of his Son crushed the powers of darkness and evil, dealt with our sin and by his grace brings deliverance to the captives and life to the dead. The agony is over. The victory has been won. For all who rest in Christ’s finished work there is salvation. In that evangelical context we are to tell men and women of a God who is ‘full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth’ (Psa. 86:15).

God is Love

“Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love. That he produces happiness is no proof of love. The earth does that unconsciously and without design . . . We must adhere to the truth in its Scriptural form, or we lose it altogether. We must believe that God is love in the sense in which that word comes home to every human heart.” - Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 429


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