“The Passion of God” - Some Questions for Jüngel on Divine Passibility

Contributed by Scott Jackson. Page numbers in the text refer to Jüngel's God's Being is in Becoming.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. - John 10:17-18
[T]he becoming in which God’s being is cannot mean either an augmentation or a diminution of God’s being…But the God whose being is in becoming can die as a human being. (xxv) – Eberhard Jüngel
Is the God of Jesus Christ “man enough” to die for us? Mainstream Christian theology for the past 2000 years has answered yes to this question (despite the minority report of docetists who have claimed that Christ only seemed to die, or of others, who have argued he was not really so divine after all). For most Christian thinkers, Chalcedon settled the matter: The fully divine Son did indeed suffer and die, but only in and through the human reality assumed in the Incarnation. What Tertullian asserted as a paradox – [T]he Son of God died; the fact can be believed because it makes no sense” – Cyril of Alexandria explained in terms of the communion of attributes: Suffering and death belong to the person of the divine Logos by virtue of the Incarnation, but negativity has no impact upon the divine life in itself.[1]

Still, in recent decades, an increasing number of theologians have become uneasy with this traditional teaching and some have reopened the question of what the Incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus could have meant for God as God. One such thinker is Eberhard Jüngel, whose brilliant “paraphrase” of Karl Barth’s doctrine of God has highlighted the radical implications of key arguments in the Church Dogmatics. In rearticulating Barth’s doctrines of the Trinity, election and reconciliation, Jüngel has argued for a genuine experience of suffering and death within the being-in-act that is God’s life. To be sure, some interpreters have challenged Jüngel’s interpetation, arguing that he has skewed Barth’s thought in a too theopaschite direction.[2] I am not going to attempt to settle here the complex question whether Jüngel faithfully interprets Barth; instead, I am going to take Jüngel’s account of Barth at face value and explore a key constructive question that emerges from it. In his terse but dense discussion of the “Passion of God,” Jüngel argues that God embraces suffering and death, without succumbing to or being determined by these negative creaturely realities, by virtue of an act of sheer freedom – the Son’s willing obedience unto death (pp. 98-103). My question is this: How might such a free obedience within the life of the triune God point the way for a new understanding of God that escapes the impasse between classical theists, who uphold divine impassibility, and theopaschite revisionists, who claim that a compassionate Creator must suffer in solidarity with creatures, even to the point of sharing to some extent in the ultimate dissolution of death.

The enigma of suffering continues to fuel vigorous debate in recent theological proposals: Is God, as the transcendent Creator and Redeemer of the world, impassible, as classical theists from the Greek fathers onward have maintained? Or must contemporary theologians affirm a deity who is radically open to suffering with, or possibly even at the hands of a realm of created beings plagued natural dissolution, human misery and moral evil?[3] A theopaschite restatement of the doctrine of God, in one form or another, has won the day in many contemporary theological circles. Yet, in my view, a certain stalemate seems inevitable in this debate. On the face of it, it appears, either the theologian upholds divine transcendence by reaffirming the classic doctrine that God cannot suffer, and thus bears of burden of explaining how such a deity can feel compassion for creatures in their misery; or, on the other hand, one embraces some form of revisionist theology (whether Whiteheadian or Hegelian process thought, a panentheist theology of the cross, openness theism, or something else), with the concomitant worry of showing how such a passable God can remain the object of worship and a ground for hope in redemption.

Might Jüngel (with his interpretation of Barth’s doctrine of God) offer a third way for contemporary theology? Jüngel’s discussion of God’s passion, in the third chapter of the book, follows the logic of Barth’s radical reinterpretation of election in CD II/2; Barth recasts the traditional doctrine of double predestination by setting the drama of the divine decision completely within the being of Jesus Christ, electing God and elected human.[4] In determining from eternity to be for us, God has freely embraced the perils of a saving exchange with humanity. “In Jesus Christ God ordained life for man, but death for himself” (92). In this view, Jesus Christ’s temporal history is the fulfillment of God’s eternal decree. In the Incarnation, God has assumed into the divine life not only the strictures of finite existence but also the onslaught of human guilt and alienation. Jüngel writes:
God’s existence as man is not only God’s existence as creature, but equally God’s handing of himself over to the opposition to God which characterizes human existence. The consequence of God’s self surrender is his suffering of the opposition to God which afflicts human existence in opposition to God -- even to death on the cross (98).
Thus, God’s being-in-becoming embraces the threat of perishing, but what can this possibly mean? Certainly, “Barth takes the passion of God very seriously,” though he rejects as blasphemous the idea of an antinomy or conflict within the life of God (ibid.). He offers a critique of the traditional metaphysical notion that a free capacity to suffer ruptures the unity of the divine being.

The ambiguity that some interpreters find in Barth’s claim that God suffers and dies, but without diminution of divine sovereignty and aseity, might be seen as a natural implication of the scandal of particularity. In Jüngel’s reading, God’s being-in-becoming must be defined from the standpoint of Jesus of Nazareth’s earthly life, but especially from his crucifixion. Such a cross-centered theology eschews any speculation about passibility or impassibility as abstract possibilities. To determine what is “possible” for God, the theologian attends first to the actuality of the cross. “No concept of God arrived at independent of the reality of Jesus Christ may decide what is possible or impossible for God. Rather, we are to say from what God as man in Jesus Christ is, does and suffers: ‘God can do this.’” (99).

For Jüngel, the coherence of this account of a God who retains the perfections of deity while embracing suffering hinges upon an inner-Trinitarian drama in which the Son freely submits to the Father. Jesus God is willingly obedient unto death, and the utterly free character of this obedience guarantees divine sovereignty amid a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of divine absolutes. God’s being-in-act as manifest in Jesus Christ unites both active resolution and a passive acceptance of the lot of sinners. On the face of it, this move seems to entail an assertion that would appear highly paradoxical: “This possibility of obedience in God is also the highest form of activity in so far as it is affirmed passivity” (101). This passive-yet-active obedience expresses the depths of God’s free self-determination. As I have argued elsewhere, Barth’s notion of suffering as applied to God’s being-in-act must be distinguished from human experience in that our suffering always entails diminishment – in particular, a willing or involuntary loss of free agency, even in cases of altruism or self sacrifice.[5]

God’s suffering is always a part of his sovereign decision as Lord. Such a reconstructed notion of passibility, I would argue, is necessary if Barth and Jüngel are to lead us to a third path for the doctrine of God. Such a position would bypass, on the one hand, the metaphysical strictures of classical theism and, on the other hand, the notion God’s life is somehow determined or diminished by the sufferings and deaths of creatures.

The notion of obedience, when applied to relationship of Son to the Father, must also be interpreted carefully to avoid any hint of subordinationism. With Barth, Jüngel clearly upholds the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as modes of being of the one triune God (37-42). Indeed, since this proposal does not lead to social Trinitarianism but to a position that stresses the divine unity, the Father’s commandment and the Son’s obedience are not strictly analogous to human power relationships. Furthermore, the concept of a free obedience by itself might not be sufficient to highlight the peculiar character of a divine sovereignty that comes to perfection through kenosis.

I would illustrate the type of position Jüngel and Barth envision by examining the odd juxtaposition of passivity and control Jesus exercises in the Gospel passion narratives. When the religious leaders taunt Jesus to prove his Messiahship by coming down from the cross, I believe the evangelists understand that Jesus could in fact have exercised this power (see Mark 15:29-32 and parallels). Otherwise, the cynicism of the hecklers would be confirmed and the irony of Jesus’ kingship would be softened. The cross of Christ is an event sui generis, and not simply another example of human martyrdom. Martyrs may suffer willingly, but in so doing they inevitably give up their freedom and what minimal control they may have had of the situation in the first place. Such things cannot be said of the suffering of the Son of God who, even from the depths of his cry of dereliction, is actively pouring out his life for us in the deepest, most mysterious expression of his sovereign Lordship. The peculiarity of Jesus’ passion becomes even more clear when the Synoptic narratives are compared to the strikingly different account in John’s Gospel, where Jesus exhibits absolute control of events from Gethsemane (where he almost has to force the guards to arrest him (18:1-11), to his last triumphant message from the cross, “It is finished,” at which point he immediately “gave up his spirit” (19:30, emphasis mine).

A similarly peculiar logic, in my view, is reflected in Jüngel’s Barthian notion of the Son’s obedience as a modality of divine sovereignty. “Precisely because obedience from eternity is not strange to the life of God, and precisely because this being is utterly other than a ‘divine death,’ God can suffer and die as man” (101). To be Lord means to be both commanding and obedient simultaneously without introducing division or antinomy into the unified, blessed life of the Trinity. This reinterpretation of Lordship as an active, free and obedience with sufferers and sinners serves to guard the doctrine of God against any form of philosophical determinism: “Passion and death are not a metaphysical piece of misfortune which overtook the Son of God who became man” (102). Critics may find the twofold character of this understanding of God and suffering incoherent inconsistent and unsatisfying, but just such a conclusion is the natural entailment of a dynamic ontology of God that is centered on the cross of Jesus Christ.

As Jüngel writes, “God’s being is a being in the act of suffering. But even in suffering God’s being remains a being in act, a being in becoming” (ibid.).

  1. See Tertullian, Against Praxeas, in Richard A. Norris, ed., The Christological Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), p. 70. For an incisive explication and defense of the patristic doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, see Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Suffer (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2000), chapter 8.

  2. See John Webster’s note in the introduction to Jüngel’s book, op. cit., p. xvii. See also Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 118-122. Paul Molnar defends an alternative reading of Barth, which affirms a clearer distinction between the immanent and economic dimensions of the Trinity than Jüngel does in this text. Such a distinction, traditionally, preserves the reality of the Incarnation while guarding the conception of God’s life in se from some potentially troubling implications of theopaschitism. See Paul D. Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity (New York: Continuum, 2002).

  3. The literature on the topic of divine im/passibility is vast. For a clear and consistent defense of the notion of God as suffering, see Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God, op. cit.; for a thorough defense of divine impassibility, see Weinandy, Does God Suffer, op. cit.

  4. For an incisive constructive interpretation of Barth on election, and the ramifications of this doctrine for the Dogmatics as a whole, that follows a similarly trajectory to Jüngel’s, see Bruce L. McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in John Webster, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 92-110.

  5. See J. Scott Jackson, Jesus Christ as the God who Loves in Freedom: Election, Covenant and the Trinity in the Thought of Karl Barth, doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 2006, chapter 4.

Response to Scott Jackson

Contributed by Matthew J. Aragon Bruce.

Scott Jackson has provided us with a concise and accurate summary of “III.3: God’s Passion” in Eberhard Jüngel’s God’s Being is in Becoming. He draws attention to Barth and Jüngel’s conception of God according to which, and contrary to classical metaphysical theism and modern “theopaschite revisionists,” God does suffer but he does so without coming into contradiction with himself. In light of Jackson’s excellent exposition, I thought it appropriate to discuss the basis on which Jüngel and Barth develop such a concept of God.

According to Jüngel, “A concept of God arrived at independently of the reality of Jesus Christ may not decide what is possible and impossible for God. Rather it is arrived at from what God as man in Jesus Christ is, does, and suffers” [1]. This claim is in direct opposition to the metaphysical concept of God of much of the Christian tradition. Drawing upon the excellent and regrettably neglected study by Werner Elert (Der Ausgang der altkirchlichen Christologie), Jüngel draws attention to Barth’s attack on “presupposed” concepts of God that deny “the ontological implications of God’s passion,” and according to which the incarnation could not “mean anything for himself, or could affect his Godhead” [2].

God’s being is one that suffers while remaining who he is. Jüngel refers to this as God’s persistence in the historicality of his being. Even in the suffering of death God remains who he is – a being in becoming. But as a being in becoming God’s persistent self-identification with the crucified one results in “a new act” [3]. This “new act” is the resurrection, in which God “corresponds” to himself in a new way by bringing humanity into relationship with himself, which results in our participation in his persistence in the face of death.

In order for such a conception of a suffering but self-persistent God to work, traditional metaphysics and its understanding of God as a primary substance must be rejected. God must be regarded as an event rather than as a being for and in itself formulated apart from the revelation of the incarnation. God is properly regarded not as an unmoved mover but as a self-moved mover, and revelation the movement of this self-moved mover in which he revealed himself to humanity. In order for revelation to be actually the revealedness of God himself, God himself must be a historical event: “For revelation is an historical event or it is just not revelation” [4].

It is in the incarnation that God’s being becomes an historical event. In the revelation of the incarnation God becomes an event to which historical predicates can be attached. But if this is the case then the capability to be historicized must be an eternal attribute of God: “The capacity of predication must belong constitutively to God’s historicality. The capacity of predication is however, the event of the Word which underlies all predications and makes all predications possible” [5].

The claim that God is capable of historical predication is necessary if we are to regard revelation as possible. For God to make himself known to us he must be capable of being a historical event of which we can have knowledge. However God’s capacity to be known by us is dependent upon God’s being in act – it is only through God’s action that we know him; it is he who makes himself known to us. God self-reiterates or self-interprets himself, to use Jüngel’s terminology, which signifies that he brings himself to speech using human language. He did so from eternity by taking on the historical predicate of Jesus of Nazereth. This leads Jüngel to conclude:
“Is it to much to say with Barth that the Logos, in which alone ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ can be a predicate of revelation, was already with God in the beginning as the subject of this historical predication and thus ‘the placeholder for Jesus?’ Barth has taught us with his doctrine of the existence [Sein] of the man Jesus in the beginning with God to understand christologically the basis of the historicality of God’s being to historical predicates. We will have to keep this theologoumenon as a treasure so long as we have nothing better to set in its place” [6].

Citations, unless otherwise noted, are from Gottes Sein ist im Werden, 4th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1986) followed by Webster’s translation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) in parentheses.

[1] p. 98 (ET 99); cf. Barth KD, IV.1, pp. 202-203 (ET 186-87).
[2] p. 99n.100 (100n.101), citation from KD IV.1, p. 92f (84f).
[3] p. 102 (103).
[4] p. 108 (109).
[5] p. 110 (110).
[6] p. 113 (113).


D.W. Congdon said…
Wonderful! Scott, you've given us a very well-formulated and concise summary of Jüngel's position. I've read many similar accounts, but yours seems the clearest and most comprehensive.

And thanks, Matt, for that point about the historicality of God. You'll see some of those same statements in my own contribution to this conference, so thanks for "setting me up," so to speak. :)
Weekend Fisher said…
Speaking as an unapologetic theopaschite here -- if we take the doctrine of God at Chalcedon as impassible, it's easy to note that the next several councils had to attend to the business of making that non-Nestorian, insofar as they could. Constantinople #2 embraced some canons at the suggestions of the theopaschites:

If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity: let him be anathema. (Canon X, Second Council of Constantinople, 553 A.D.).

If anyone shall say that the wonder-working Word of God is one [Person] and the Christ that suffered another; or shall say that God the Word was with the woman-born Christ, or was in him as one person in another, but that he was not one and the same our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, incarnate and made man, and that his miracles and the sufferings which of his own will he endured in the flesh were not of the same [Person]: let him be anathema. (Canon III, Second Council of Constantinople, 553 A.D.).

Many of the people here are doubtless familiar with this. My point is only that the theopaschite view has a stronger representation in church history than is often appreciated.

Thanks for the post!

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